Film : Black comedy reigns
"I Served the King of England," Czech Republic's 2008 Oscar entry for Best Foreign Film, is a sumptuously photographed black comedy about a Prague hotel waiter.
Director Jiri Menzel employs a sophisticated, absurdist style not seen recently in United States comedy. Adapting the work of Czech novelist Bohumil Hrabal as in Mr. Menzel's 1967 Oscar-winning "Closely Watched Trains," this film follows the life of Chaplin-esque waiter Jan Dite (Ivan Barnev).
The audience meets Jan as he exits a Communist Czech prison in the early 80s. He begins work as a road repairman in the mountains near an abandoned village on the German-Czech border. The film moves back and forth from life in the 30s when Germans and Czechs intermingled amicably, through Nazi occupation of the Czech Republic, to its Communist regime, and in each time shows Jan as both the clueless waiter, and as his older, wiser self (Oldrich Kaiser).
Young Jan proves a brilliantly comic guide through the decadent world of wealthy Czechs. He seems to lead a charmed life while Europe crumbles around him. The film's title, "I Served the King of England," has little to do with the movie except to point out the affectation of the maitre d' Jan idolizes, who uses the phrase to explain his expertise.
A quick, if artless, study, Jan learns how to arabesque through hotel dining rooms balancing food-laden trays. Early on, Jan discovers even the rich will grovel for coins he tosses on the floor or street. Along with depictions of food and women, the gesture epitomizes Mr. Menzel's satirical method. The grimmest commentaries, like cattle cars loaded with Jews headed for extermination, remain in the background.
And Jan attracts women like honey. After satisfying them sexually, he decorates their naked bodies with flowers or food in the scenes of bare-breasted beauties, fetishized Vargas-style like platters of gourmet food.
Oblivious to the changing politics of the times, Jan finally falls in love with a Sudeten German girl, Liza (Julia Jentsch), an ardent Aryan. After the Nazis take over, Jan finds himself in a formerly Jewish-owned hotel now filled with bodacious blondes lolling around in an Aryan breeding orgy. Once the war goes badly for the Nazis, a lascivious scene achieves a corrosive effect. When the Communists take over the Czech Republic, Jan's charmed life comes to an end.
Director Menzel enriches his movie stylistically with silent film sequences and documentary footage in black and white. There are also Fellini-esque touches such as paper currency and stamps swirling through the air like leaves.
"I Served the King of England" explores the consequences of political naiveté with a deft eye. It is a tour de force of filmmaking but may be an acquired taste, as are many of the world's best films.
"I Served the King of England," 7:30 pm, Saturday, May 2, Katharine Cornell Theatre, Vineyard Haven. $8 (MVFS members $5). Doors open at 7 pm. Sponsored by the Martha's Vineyard Film Society.