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While filming a novel is always difficult.. I think this film captures
the spirit of the novel.. one man' life as he succeeds and fails and
survives and never seems to be really touched by the world events
happening around him (the story starts in 1920's and ends mid-1960's)
The actors are perfectly cast, especially the two actors playing Jan
Dite. The cinematography is wonderful, as is the music. I have read the
novel and I live in the Czech Republic, so I have familiarity with both
the story and the culture, but I think the story is universal enough
for all audiences to enjoy this film.
This is one of the biggest budget Czech films ever and you can see ALL of the money on the screen, costumes, sets and locations (including the beautiful Hotel Parziz in Prague, which is unchanged from when it was built!)
highly recommend this film to anyone who loves melancholy, sweet stories with a bit of political commentary thrown in for good measure....
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
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.
Like the butler played by Anthony Hopkins in the 1994 film "The Remains
of the Day", the waiter at the centre of "I Served the King of England"
(Jiri Menzel, Czech Republic, 2006) is not interested in politics.
Major historical events surround him, yet these completely escape his
attention. His ambition is simply to become a millionaire, like the fat
cats he serves at table. In 1930s Prague, Hitler, in Berlin, is making
a radio announcement about his aim to "liberate" the Sudetenland.
Bored, Jan Dite, the waiter, simply turns the dial to a dance music
He manages to float through the Nazi invasion, first of the Sudetenland, then of Czechoslovakia. By a combination of hook and crook, he achieves his ambition of owning his own hotel through the sale of valuable stamps, stolen from a vanished Jewish family. This does not give him a moment's pause but later, when he sees a trainload of Jews in cattle-cars moving off to Auschwitz, he has a rush of compassion and chases after the train in an attempt to hand the deportees a sandwich. After the war, as a self-confessed millionaire, he is sent to prison when his hotel is nationalised. He emerges fifteen years later, older, but not much wiser. He is Schweik, but without the latter's sly intelligence.
This sketchy summary cannot do justice to a film which has been described as a near-flawless masterpiece, in which "Prague has never looked better". It is permeated with the ironic wit which marked Menzel's earlier films, such as the Academy Award winning Closely Watched Trains (1966). Dite befriends the German girl Liza, described by one reviewer as "the sweetest little Nazi in the history of the cinema". They are in bed, making love in the missionary position. Liza keeps pushing his head aside so that she can gaze at the big picture of Adolf Hitler on the opposite wall. Such was love in the Third Reich. The scene in which Dite is undergoing a racial fitness test which involves giving a sperm sample is intercut with young Czech men being unloaded from a lorry at an execution ground. Of this, Dite is blissfully unaware.
The Remains of the Day was based on a serious and perceptive novel by Kazuo Ishiguro. The genesis of I Served the King of England, by contrast, was a comic novel by Bohumil Hrabal, a book I cannot wait to get my hands on. Any offers?
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
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.
Menzel's film is a modern masterpiece. It tells the story of one man's fate, as seen through the mythical pen of Bohumil Hrabal, one of the greatest Czech writers of the 20th century. The film is interspersed with documentary footage of the occupation of the remnants of the Czech republic in 1939. It tells how one man grows up in one system, survives another, and willingly submits himself to a third (Communist). The slogan "my happiness was always in the fact that some unhappiness overtook me" belongs to the East European theater of the absurd. For those of you who have seen the amazing performance of Julia Jentsch in "Sophie Scholl - The Last Days" it will come as a surprise, if not a shock, to see Ms. Jentsch play a character exactly opposite to the one which brought her such fame -- a true blue Nazi! But that's what great actors are made of -- anti-Nazi heroine this year, Nazi lover of the main protagonist the next. She learned some Czech for this role, but when she speaks in German, the screen shows Czech subtitles. Some scenes are really priceless, as when Dite is escorted out of his hotel (presumably in 1948), by two members of the Communist people's militia who at first are inclined to allow him to stay on as administrator of his now nationalized enterprise, but when he keeps insisting he is a millionaire and needs to be arrested, they willingly oblige. Irony stays with us through the film, starting with the opening scene when the elder Dite is released from a Communist jail in Prague and he explains: "I was sentenced to 15 years (for being a millionaire), but because of the amnesty, I only had to sit for 14 and 3/4."
Menzel, faithful to Hrabal, shows the Fall of Czech Man - and Sudeten
German Woman - and their expulsion from their respective
Middle-European idylls: They tragically fall into each other's arms
just as global issue is joined that soon disillusions our Romeo and
destroys his (now unfortunately rampantly Nazi) Juliet.
Neither the quiet life of getting rich and enjoying all the pleasures money can bring, nor the stirring Wagnerian strains of Germanic supremacist idealism, can survive, but our opportunistic anti-hero, Ditie (a name which can translate as 'little man') is more adaptable, because his ideals are more pliant to the accidents of fate than his German wife's rigid Hitlerite fanaticism, and consequently he is eventually able to emerge from a sort of Communist Purgatory with a keen appreciation of life's real and much simpler necessities.
With profound irony, it is in a smashed and ethnically cleansed Sudeten German village that an older and a wiser Ditie's rehabilitation is completed. And it is from this sobering perspective that he can finally both regret the excesses and errors of his life, and yet also take nostalgic pleasure from what was, after all, the wonderful, glittering, profoundly human spectacle of folly and grandeur which his life has been! Far from tragic or depressing, therefore, this film of the 20th century debacle of a nation ruined remarkably concludes with a very Czech endorsement of the simple, inoffensive pleasure in life which will always console this patient people at the troubled heart of darkest Europe: Ditie allows himself to enjoy a tankard of Pilsener beer - and Menzel's camera seems to gild the moment with as much gloriously sensuous golden dreaminess and spiritual fulfillment as ever bloated millionaire or romantically excessive idealist knew.
At last, the little man has found his fulfillment where it always lay: in the little things. At last, old, disillusioned and unseduced any longer by the world's headier attractions, Ditie finds himself at home and happy.
Here, the film seems to be saying, is the real idyll to which the Czech person should retire for refreshment of the soul, and not those false - though fabulous - ones we have been forced to discard.
Just as Ditie observes that his own career of accidents always turned out well, so in this perspective the Czech experience seems, on the whole, to have turned out for the best. This optimistic fatalism seems typical of the Czech way of seeing things, and is as characteristic of this film of Menzel's old age as it was of his early masterpiece, 'Closely observed trains.' On this view, it would be churlish to condemn the film for self-indulgence, as many Western critics have done. Frankly, they haven't suffered so much, so what do they know of ethical conundrums and the moral paradoxes of survival? This meditation on the more inglorious struggles of the insignificant and friendless to survive deserves our respect, not an easy and priggish contempt. This must especially be true in the country which lies behind the heavily loaded title 'I served the King of England,' for this heavy hint must surely prick that particular national conscience with its role in one of history's most blatant acts of betrayal. The title practically dares any English commentator to judge Ditie in his historical predicament!
(There is also considerable satisfaction to be had by the viewer from the sheer technical finesse of the film's production, on every level. Jiri Menzel's craft is also hugely impressive in scene after scene, which are turned with complete mastery of tragi-comic effect. But this is a study for another occasion.)
this is a farce in part, but i do wonder why there's the great American need to qualify this movie. so one will know the correct response, perhaps? aw, just sit back and be enlightened. if more folks had laughed at the Nazis they wouldn't have made it into power. and as for the woman being portrayed as lesser than the man, this is called history, folks. the movie is charming. barney is a mime's delight. and the sex is delicious, and certainly not raunchy as one reviewer on the DVD writes. i always find it stimulating to have to curb my love of MTV editing and car chases and to let the different pace of the European style wash over me. ah tempora, ah mores.
Czechoslovakian screenwriter, actor and director Jirí Menzel's
sixteenth feature film is an adaptation of a novel from 1971 by Czech
author and frequent collaborator of the director Bohumil Hrabal
(1914-1997) which was shot on various locations in the Czech Republic
and written by Jirí Menzel. It tells the story about Jan Díte, an old
retired man who reminiscences the time when he as an ambitious young
man encountered a successful business man who inspired him to become a
millionaire and the time when he began working as a waiter at a high
standard hotel in Prague for Skrivanek, the headwaiter who once served
the king of England.
This brilliantly directed Czech, German, Hungarian and Slovakian co-production by Czech New Wave director Jirí Menzel, a character-driven journey through a cheerful and ambitious man's eventful life, depicts a multifaceted study of character about a very determined, articulate and good-hearted man who has numerous relationships with various women on his way towards fulfilling his dream. Shifting from past to present with an efficient narrative structure, this well-paced, imaginatively written and humorous drama, which functions well both as a period piece and a social-satire, creates a visually beautiful and adventurous story about life, destiny, dreams and love.
This moving comedy which Jirí Menzel got to direct after waiting ten years for the settlement over a rights dispute, is finely photographed by Czech cinematographer Jaromír Sofr, has some notable production design and some wonderful acting performances by Czech actor Ivan Barnev and German actress Julia Jentsch in a role which is significantly contrary from the one she played in German director Marc Rothemund's "Sophie Scholl-The Final Days" (2005). A romantic, charming and life-affirming film which gained, among other awards, the FIPRESCI Prize and was nominated for the Golden Bear at the 57th Berlin International Film Festival in 2007.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
When we first see Jan Dite he is an older man being released from a
Czech communist prison. In a bit of gentle humor we learn how fortunate
he is. An amnesty has set him free, after he only served 14 years and
seven months of a 15-year sentence. His crime? That and other things
we'll learn in this picaresque, softly ironic, slightly sarcastic
comedy of Nazis and Communists, of getting along and of knowing when to
move on. I Served the King of England is a marvelous movie by Jiri
Menzel, the Czech director who gave us Closely Watched Trains 40 years
earlier. While elements of the plot are discussed, there aren't any
Jan Dite is a young man with all the innocence and practical self-interest of a hungry puppy. He is played by Ivan Barney, short, slim, with blond hair, blue eyes, and a face that, one person said, resembles a mix of, when young, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Roman Polanski and Derek Jacobi. One thing for sure, he's a fine actor. We meet the young man while he's selling sausages at a Czechoslovakia train station in the Thirties. Already he has developed techniques to increase his profit, but he's so earnest, so shy and sly, and so open about it all that we can't help encouraging him. When he realizes even the wealthy will get down on their knees to scrabble after a few coins, he knows he can do just as well as they do. His determination to be a millionaire takes hold. In his climb to success we're with him as he becomes a drinks server and table cleaner in a beer hall, a young man of all duties in a plush resort hotel for the very rich, and a waiter in the dining room of the Hotel Paris, the most beautiful hotel in Prague. Along the way we track his encounters with the arrogant, the wealthy, the helpful and a number of gorgeous prostitutes who service the elderly men who have money. There are voluptuous meals that include oysters, small birds, snails and naked girls, and Jan serves them all. He develops a talent for gracefully dancing around tables holding trays filled with full plates high above his head...and for decorating the naked tummies of lovely women with flowers, or currency, or even the left-over delicacies of a dinner. Roasted pineapple rings were never put to better use.
Then the director takes Jan and us into Hitler's takeover of Czechoslovakia, a marriage to a Sudeten lass who is so dedicated to the cause she gazes passionately at a photo of Hitler while poor Jan tries mightily to help make a baby. We visit Jan at work during the war, a wonderful vacation spot run by Himmler where naked Aryan young ladies gambol in the nude, waiting for scientifically selected studly soldiers to impregnate them so that there will be more perfect little blond babies for the Reich. The place soon will be used as a rehabilitation center for soldiers back from the Eastern front with missing limbs. Jan is there, serving and watching them all.
But thanks to many valuable stamps taken from the empty homes of Polish Jews by his wife, who left to serve at the front, eventually Jan has his dream come true...he becomes a millionaire after the war, and one who, no less, now owns the Hotel Paris. Jan's basic innocence doesn't prepare him for Communism. At least Jan succeeds in one thing, achieving the company of other millionaires.
I Served the King of England is satire, but gently served and with an appealing person in the young Jan Dite (and Dite means "child" in Czech), Picaresque it is, with imaginings of fast footwork, delighted sex, unexpected adventures, innocent opportunism and a funny and delightful score. Much like Closely Watched Trains, there are times when the reality of some of the situations is not amusing. I Served the King of England is that rare movie, a thing to thorough enjoy, with some deftly planted barbs so sharp you scarcely feel them.
For something akin to the spirit of the music score, not exactly but with that love for old- style swing, go to YouTube, type in Ondrej Havelka and then click to play the video short "Me To Tady Nebavi." Havelka is a contemporary band leader and singer (and tap dancer) who recreates Czech swing using the appearance of old fashioned style film clips. Bring your love for the offbeat with you.
Obsluhoval jsem anglického krále (2006), written and directed by Jirí
Menzel, is a Czech film shown in the U.S. with the title, "I Served the
King of England." Menzel directed "Closely Watched Trains," one of the
great movies of the 1960's.
Using flash forwards and flash backs, we follow the life of Jan Díte, played as a young man by Ivan Barnev, and as an older man by Oldrich Kaiser. Díte is obsessed with becoming a millionaire, and the younger Díte manages to accomplish this goal by his total unconcern for the plight of his country and his fellow Czechs.
When the Germans invade Sudetenland, and then the rest of Czechoslovakia, Díte takes it all in stride, calmly embracing--figuratively--the Nazi invaders and--literally--a lovely young Nazi woman. I think we are supposed to perceive him as naive and innocent, but my interpretation is that he is willfully ignorant and basically uncaring. My mother always said, "There are none so blind as those who will not see." That quote perfectly fits Díte's character.
The film has some comic moments, and the views of Prague are lovely. The movie is worth watching if the opportunity arises, but not worth strenuously seeking out. We saw it at the Rochester High Falls International Film Festival. It will work well on DVD.
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