Review: I Served the King of England

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Sony Pictures Classics / Everett

Ivan Barnev stars in Jirí Menzel's I Served the King of England.

Jan Dítĕ (Ivan Barnev) is a little guy — short in stature, and short on political awareness and social conscience as well. He's just someone who wants to get rich as quickly as possible, which in the course of I Served the King of England he briefly does. When we meet him, however, he is being discharged, penniless, from a Communist-era Czechoslovakian prison, having served a term of almost 15 years because more or less accidentally, and certainly without malice aforethought, he ended up — very profitably — on the Nazi side during the war. After jail, he's exiled to a remote corner of the country, where he has plenty of time to reflect on the error of his ways. His recollections form the substance of writer-director Jirí Menzel's wry yet wiry fable.

Jan may be a geopolitical dimwit, but he is extraordinarily shrewd when it comes to his own career in the restaurant business. He's an expert listener, overhearing conversations that enable him to rub off his rough edges and advance his interests. He begins as a waiter in a provincial pub and moves on to a posh Prague restaurant, then to service in a high-end spa. That establishment becomes a camp full of often naked Nazi boys and girls, earnestly attempting to create a genetically perfected Master Race. In time, as the war goes badly for the Germans, it becomes a military hospital. By then, however, Jan has married a Hitlerite, who dies leaving him an invaluable stamp collection she has liberated from a Holocaust victim. The proceeds from its sale enable him to buy the spa, which is where the new Communist regime finds him and, in essence, punishes him as much for his lack of current ideological enthusiasm as for his wartime collaboration with the enemy.

Throughout these low-key adventures, Jan maintains his air of wide-eyed innocence. Stuff is always happening to him, and he reacts to circumstances but never acts upon them. When, for example, the maitre d' in that Prague restaurant makes a bold subversive gesture to the occupying Nazis, Jan is sympathetic. But he does not take a stand with the man who has been his friend and mentor. He is, in effect, the heir to "The Good Soldier Schweik," anti-hero of the classic novel by Jaroslav Hasek, which is the Czech anti-epic.

Over the years, Schweik has been the model for dozens of fictional characters — among them Yossarian in Catch-22 — and he was a particularly favored template for the Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal, who was Menzel's friend and collaborator for decades. Menzel's finest film, Closely Watched Trains, which won the foreign film Academy Award in 1967, was based on a Hrabal story about a feckless railroad worker who entirely by accident becomes a hero during World War II. I Served the King of England, the Czech Republic's entry for the 2008 Academy Awards, is very much a part of that pattern. Menzel's movies are never barn burners. They have a gentle, slightly wandering air about them, which puts them at a competitive disadvantage in the international market, which prefers films that more directly, more heroically, more violently take up history's cataclysmic events. Sometimes, to be honest, his work shades over from the wry to the merely coy and there are moments in his films that are just too cute for comfort.

On the other hand, they all pursue a very basic irony: Even in the worst of times, ordinary human beings solipsistically pursue their little lives. They get married, have children, pursue their paltry careers, no matter who is running things in the larger world. In investigating the intersection where mini-histories collide with mega-history, Menzel provides a valuable humanistic service. People like Jan Dítĕ are always the victims of the politicians and ideologues who would engineer the human soul. And they never quite understand why they are carelessly chosen for exile, prison or death. There's something eerie in the serene way they accept their fates. But there's something sweetly comical about it, too. I Served the King of England may not be a totally riveting movie, but it is, in its gently insinuating way, a curiously rewarding one.