Three and a half stars (R)
In 1967, Czech filmmaker Jiri Menzel made his mark on the international movie scene with his debut production, Closely Watched Trains, based on a novel by renowned Czech author Bohumil Hrabal. Menzel’s latest, I Served the King of England, has a similar humanistic style and is also based on a novel by Hrabal.
I’m betting that my editor just read the opening paragraph and is thinking, “Wow, that wasn’t very inviting. Generally, Ed does a pretty good job of starting pieces on foreign films in a way that is more welcoming to general audiences.”
My reasoning is this: The general audience has never heard of I Served the King of England. Hell, most regular filmgoers haven’t heard of it. The movie is playing for one week only at Landmark’s Keystone Art Cinema, so they clearly aren’t expecting a breakthrough hit. So I’m writing this to you, yes you, that rare person that reads movie essays because he/she enjoys them as essays and is always open for something new and different at the cinema. I’ll bet you won’t even flinch when I announce that the film is in Czech and German with English subtitles.
I really like you, idealized reader.
Now, about the film: I Served the King of England is a curious little movie, a black comedy with wonderful flourishes about a man who dreamed of becoming a millionaire hotelier and ended up happy when his 15-year prison sentence was ended after only 14 years and nine months due to a general amnesty.
It opens in the ’50s with the release of the elderly Jan Dite (Oldrich Kaiser) from a Prague prison. He goes to an abandoned German village near the border and begins cleaning up a deserted pub, while remembering what brought him to this point. Cut back to the ’30s, where we meet Dite as a young man (played by Bulgarian-born actor Ivan Barnev). Dite is a small, non-threatening fellow who gets hassled about his size periodically, but mostly passes under the radar. He’s a captivating figure, reminiscent of the kind of man-child that often starred in comedies during the silent movie era.
He wears a passive expression most of the time as he quietly maneuvers his way up the ladder, carefully studying those around him. He learns that if he tosses some coins on the ground almost everybody — even the rich — will get on their hands and knees to snag them. He amuses himself with this little game a lot.
I won’t go into Dite’s adventures because I want you to enjoy the surprises as much as I did. Suffice to say that what happens is colorful, darkly amusing and presented with imagination and great style. Dite’s single-minded focus on his goals and amoral outlook is fascinating and at times scary, particularly when he gets involved with Liza (Julia Jentsch), a fervent Nazi. Dite, well played by both actors but especially Barnev, takes a shockingly long time to learn some basic lessons about his place in the family of man, which is understandable given his fixation on his goals.
As writer/director Jiri Menzel lays out Dite’s life, he often recreates the atmosphere of a silent movie, complete with a jaunty piano, and the technique works well, helping to balance out the darker moments. A segment featuring a lot of beautiful young women cavorting at a plush Nazi breeding camp looks like it is headed for a big payoff, but Menzel has another idea on how to deal with the bizarre situation.
I Served the King of England is different than anything I’ve seen in quite some time. Aside from knowing that Dite would spend time in prison, I had no idea where the story was going for most of its two-hour running time. What a treat to be as caught off guard by a small film as I was by this one. Remember, it’s only booked for one week.