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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
Czech Republic's Official Submission to the Best Foreign Language Film Category of the 80th Annual Academy Awards (2008). See more »
During the montage of Jan making love to Lise, stock footage is shown of SS men marching through the streets of Prague. The same footage is later reused by flipping the film from left to right, which is evident by the Nazi armbands moving from their left arms to their right arms and swastikas reversing direction. See more »
Jan Díte, older:
A person becomes most human, often against his own will, when he begins to founder, when he is derailed and deprived of order.
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One cannot help but admire it. Even if it doesn't quite reach the dizzying heights to which it aspires.
Maybe, like me, you don't know that much about the history of the country wherein sits Prague, and its remnants of regal splendour. After watching I Served the King of England, you will know more. A lot more. The politics. The humour. The cultures. The aspirations. The troubled relations with neighbouring empires. And the incredible resilience of its individuals.
I Served the King of England is very ambitious. It condenses an epic novel into two hours and squeezes in more styles than a catwalk. There are nods to the wit of Charlie Chaplin. The visual eulogies of Peter Greenaway. Penitentiaries, bars, brothels, woods, invading armies. All are collected in a dizzying montage as Jan Díte reviews the highs and lows of his life and loves in flashback.
He has just been released from Prague Correctional Facility, having served almost 15 years. He is also in rather humble circumstances. This seems to contrast with his lifelong and apparently successful ambition to become a millionaire. The first half of the film has a theatrical feel of unreality much like a musical. Serving lad Díte manages to score with a local beauty at the nearby bordello. He then get various jobs that involve him working with sophisticated women of pleasure, or in top hotels, or sometimes both together. His short stature enables him to play many tricks, like surreptitiously throwing a handful of coins on the ground for the pleasure of watching rich men get down on their hands and knees with their bums in the air. One of his favourite penchants with the ladies, on the other hand, is to ornament their naked and prostrate forms with anything from flowers, to fruit, to funds from his growing pocket book. One particularly striking moment is when he decorates a naked brothel girl (who looks worryingly like Kylie Minogue) in large margarita daisies. The scene is as arresting as the nude-and-rose-petals shot in American Beauty, or the female-served-for-dinner in The Cook The Thief His Wife & Her Lover.
Menzel's taste for a decadent protagonist is in no way sullied by shame. His whores are creatures of beauty: "The scent of raspberry trailed behind her. She stepped out in that silk dress, full of peonies, and bees hovered around her like a Turkish honey store." ('Bees' you will note, not 'flies'.) The description follows an incident where the lady in question pours raspberry grenadine over herself - to stop Díte from getting into trouble.
I Served the King of England soon becomes rife with political and social comment, even before we get to the eponymous and very loaded comment by Díte's boss boasting his resumé. Having treated us to sumptuous society, the film reminds us of the cost: "I discovered that those who said 'work is ennobling' were the same men who drank all night and ate with lovely young ladies seated on their knees." The palatial buildings, over-refined manners and ostentatious egregiousness of old Europe belie the fabled shangrila on which they are modelled. As we witness the Nazi and then Communist take-overs, the film touches on many issues that have affected the creation and difficult continuation of the country now known as the Czech Republic. Amusingly, the Nazi ideal of 'racial purity' enables Díte to continue his lifestyle - his German fiancé secures him a job at a breeding ground for top military studs.
The best parts of the film are full of beauty and sadness. An old man reminisces: "We, in the 20th century, are inclined to see the glory in ourselves and the shame in others that's how the mess got started." The latter half of the film gradually becomes more serious in tone, even didactic. Here is your history lesson, insight into human nature, poetry and great literary adaptation all in one, it seems to be saying to us.
I Served the King of England is a film on an enormous scale. It makes a valiant attempt to be a masterpiece, but feels as if it didn't have quite enough time to display its flaunted genius. One cannot help but admire it. Even if it doesn't quite reach the dizzying heights to which it aspires.
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