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Czechoslovakia, 1963. Jan Díte is released from prison after serving 15 years. He goes into semi exile in a deserted village near the German border. In flashbacks, he tells his story: he's a small, clever and quick-witted young man, stubbornly naïve, a vendor at a train station. Thanks to a patron, he becomes a waiter at upscale hotels and restaurants. We see him discover how the wealthy tick and how to please women. He strives to be a millionaire with his own hotel. Before the war, he meets Líza, a German woman in Prague. Is this his ticket to wealth or his undoing? Meanwhile, we see Jan putting a life together after prison: why was he sentenced, and who will he become?Written by
The works of Czech director Jiri Menzel constitute a tasty cocktail of humanism and laughter. In this film, the cocktail is personified in the words spoken by the narrator and lead character early in the film: "It was always my luck to run into bad luck." Menzel's innocent male country bumpkins have simplistic goals in life-get rich and charm the beautiful woman in their horizon. His films remind you of the social satire embedded in the works of Charles Chaplin and the visual gags in the cinema of Buster Keaton. Only Menzel's body of work has a dose of moral ambiguity.
While Menzel's cinema is often mistaken as being solely his own genius, he actually rides on the shoulders of three major literary giants of the former CzechoslovakiaBohumil Hrabal, Vladislaw Vancura, and Zedenek Sverak. Menzel's cinema provides a convenient "easy read." of the fine literary tradition to which Milan Kundera belongs by bringing alive on screen slivers of statements and observations recorded by these novelists. Menzel's true gift is making the written word look attractive on screen with the use of imaginative visual gags. The spoken words (the writer's contribution) and carefully chosen actors serve as the pivot to enjoy the visual feast in Menzel's cinema. His mastery of visual comedy has made a major difference to Czech cinema being associated with comedy rather than drama, quite unlike other East European cinema where tragedies and serious drama overshadowed the comedy genre.
This film happens to be the sixth work of Hrabal that Menzel has adapted on screen-the first being "Closely watched trains."
Politicians find satire uncomfortable. It is not surprising that Hrabal's novel "I served the King of England" was banned for years. When ultimately Menzel made it into a movie in 2006 using Hrabal's script, it won the FIPRESCI prize at Berlin. Menzel's cinema (and Hrabal's novels) has considerable political and social criticism. The film opens with clemency/pardon given to a prisoner who has almost completed his jail term. Communist political bigwigs wish to ape the capitalists, without a clue of what is required to gain social respect. Hrabal's script is clearly critical of the communist regime: "People who said social work was ennobling were the same men who drank all night and ate with lovely young women seated on their knees.' Butlers act superior to their new masters who do not know social etiquette. The new Czech communist politicos bend over backwards to please any one with the remotest Russian credentials. It is no small wonder that Hrabal got into trouble with the authorities until the political regime changed in recent years.
Apart from political criticism, social criticism of Czechs get liberally dished out in the film. When the physically short-statured waiter Jan Dite (literally translated as Johnny Child) throws coins on the floor for fun, rich and poor Czechs crawl without social distinction on the floor to pick up the money, allowing the short-statured waiter to look down at those he was serving and emerge physically and socially "tall" for a brief period. There is another line that Hrabal/Menzel uses to describe Czechs and their actions over the decades "Czechs do not fight warstherefore we were not invaded, we were annexed." These are lines that will make many laugh, but these lines could make the author/ the director unpopular with a few who cannot take self criticism.
The quest for money and riches underpin this film in particular and much of Menzel's cinema. The film has the lead character selling sausages at a railway station. So engrossed is he in counting the change he has to return to a customer who has given him a big bank note, that the train pulls out with the angry customer fuming that he has been cheated. But Hrabal and Menzel had together done a similar scene in "Closely watched trains" where a train pulls out as the young hero is about to kiss his love with eyes closed, taking away his beloved girl whose eyes are open and is agitated that the kiss was missed.
Money is a recurring theme in "I served the King of England." The hero dreams of being a millionaire. One colorful character keeps himself amused spreading out cash on the floor like a carpet. Money is what waiter's get if he is good and smart, enough to buy up the hotel. He gets a medal from an Ethiopian Head of State, modeled on the physical attributes of Haile Selassie; merely because he can bend down to receive it. He gets a fat tip because he is physically near to a rich guest doling out his largesse.
After one has laughed sufficiently, one could reflect on the less obvious but darker side of Hrabal/Menzel's contribution to cinema. The women are lovely to look at. They bear a striking common factorthey are to be won. They are to be used, often as useful commodities. One Nazi girl even makes love, thinking of Hitler during the act. You do not see Hrabal and Menzel developing the women characters as they do their male ones. In this film, the anti-hero is dismissed from his job because he is not a good Czech.
"I served the King of England" are the spoken credentials of a respected waiter in the film as he trains the lead character of the film. Yet, the film is about a successful Czech who became a millionaire as he had dreamt, who married a Nazi and had enjoyed life when other Czechs were being led to the gas chambers, and was imprisoned when the Communists came to power. Hrabal and Menzel may have given us great comedy over six films. Evaluate the content closely and there is more to their work than pure comedy.
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