I Served the King of England (Obsluhoval jsem anglického krále) Review
In 1966, Czech director Jirí Menzel made an international breakthrough with Closely Observed Trains, and it remains Menzel’s best-known film in the West. The film was based on a novel by Bohumil Hrabal, who also wrote the screenplay. This was but the first of several collaborations between the two men, which include Larks on a String (made 1969, unbanned 1990). Hrabal died in 1997, but Menzel has once again returned to the writer. I Served the King of England is based on Hrabal’s novel of 1990.
Jan Dite (Oldrich Kaiser) is released from prison after serving nearly fifteen years by order of the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia (as it was then). As he returns to Czech society, he remembers his earlier life. (Ivan Barnev plays his younger self.) Jan was never interested in politics, but just wanted to earn his fortune running a hotel. We follow his adventures as he learns the ropes as a waiter and chases women on the side. Then comes World War II and German occupation, and Hitlerite Liza (Julia Jentsch) enters his life.
Even if Closely Observed Trains is the only one of Menzel’s films you’ve seen before (which it is, in my case) you can see the similarities forty years later. Much is made of Dite’s shortness (his surname is Czech for “child”), and like the earlier film’s hapless protagonist he’s more wrapped up in his own concerns – not least, getting his end away – than the momentous events going on around him. There’s the ironic, blackly comic, somewhat bittersweet tone that doesn’t avoid social comment. And not to forget the view of (heterosexual) sex as part of the great human comedy. This is a film which even manages to find laughs in Aryan breeding programmes. Hungarian director Istvan Szabo makes a cameo appearance.
I Served the King of England is a good-looking film displaying much of Menzel’s visual inventiveness. (Note the early sequences shot in the style of a silent film.) It’s polished and entertaining, holding the attention for its two hours onscreen. But there’s something a little soft-focused about it. Maybe it’s age: Menzel was still in his twenties when he made Closely Observed Trains, his late sixties when he made this. And the earlier film was made in a country under Communist rule, where any social comment had to be disguised if you didn’t want your film banned. By contrast, this new film’s targets are safely in the past. That said, I still enjoyed it.
View the Trailer.