Magical realism and Nazis? If this rather bizarre combination suggests all kinds of amazing possibilities to you, then get out and see I Served the King of England (Obsluhoval jsem anglického krále), the latest release by Czech legend Jiří Menzel.
In the years after World War II, Jan Dítě (Ivan Barnev & Oldřich Kaiser) is released from gaol after almost fifteen years served for an unspecified crime, and is settled in the Czech countryside far away from the rest of civilisation. In his significant free time he thinks back over the journey he took to get to where he now is – recollections of entrepreneurism, his first sexual experiences, marriage, the invasion of the Nazis and the war itself. Rising from hot dog vendor at a train station to head waiter at an elegant hotel in Prague, Dítě is something of a naif, but he is ever alert for a chance to better himself, often at others’ expense.
Ivan Barnev undertakes the difficult task of making Dítě at all likeable, and for the most part he succeeds. Barnev is charming enough to have the audience on side, even though his actions as Dítě are often repulsive. The tension between being manipulative and opportunistic and yet naive and therefore forgiveable is constant and the true measure of Barnev’s performance. There are shades of Audrey Tautou’s Amélie in Dítě that are further enhanced by the use of magical realism to illustrate his world, although much of Barnev’s work is Chaplinesque and the toothbrush moustache adds to the allusion.
Later segments dealing with the older Dítě upon release from prison are less successful, however, seeming somehow unneccessary. Dítě’s story is really about greed and taking advantage of circumstances, and his comeuppance could readily have been dealt with without what is in effect an epilogue. There is a pleasant circularity to the tale, however, that could have been completed only with the later scenes.
Performances by supporting cast are generally good, with Julia Jentsch particularly standing out, throwing herself into her role as Liza, a Sudeten German activist, with gusto. Martin Huba as maître d’ Skrivánek is also excellent, although he has the advantage of being the moral compass of the film and thus seeming more heroic and admirable than the protagonist.
Menzel portrays the effects of the Munich Agreement and subsequently World War II through Dítě’s eyes and as sidenotes to his story, and in some respects this enhances their effect. The focus remains on Dítě, but the combined blows of Nazism and then Communism are seen to impinge on personal freedom via their effect on him. The impact of these messages is subtle, however, and perhaps could have been more prominent – the story of love used as illustration of the effects of the war in Gloomy Sunday – Ein Lied von Liebe und Tod is more successful.
Its light-hearted take on the deprivations and destructiveness of Nazism (and of war itself) may not sit comfortably with every viewer, yet I Served the King of England is a subtle and relatively rewarding experience.Rating: