Jirí Menzel's "I Served the King of England" is a tragedy with the lyrical airiness of a Chaplin movie. The tonal disparity may befuddle audiences accustomed to having their "serious" films weighted with gravitas. But Menzel, the Czech director best remembered for "Closely Watched Trains," understands a great truth of life (and art): The human comedy is an inextricable mix of sadness and elation.
Jan Díte – his name means John Child in Czech – is first seen in the early 1960s as an older man (played by Oldrich Kaiser) living out his spartan existence in a near-deserted town on the Czech-German border. He was sent here following his almost 15 years of incarceration by the Communists, and before long, through flashbacks, we see what came before.
The young Jan (played with lyrical panache by Ivan Barnev) is first glimpsed in the mid-'30s selling hot dogs at a train station and dreaming of becoming rich. Although he has a jaundiced view of millionaires – he likes to throw coins onto the street and watch the wealthy, as well as the poor, scramble for them – he also wants to be a part of the club. Short and towheaded, he's improbably quick, almost balletic, on his feet. This is a talent that serves him well when he becomes a waiter at a posh restaurant. Its imperious headwaiter boasts that he once served the King of England, and Jan one day gets his chance to wait on the Emperor of Ethiopia and his entourage. (The emperor is even shorter than Jan, which makes for some delicious slapstick.)
Jan is a bumpkin with dreams of glory, an Everyman. But Menzel, adapting the novel by his compatriot Bohumil Hrabal, doesn't sugarcoat Jan's naiveté. (This is Menzel's sixth adaptation of the work of the late novelist, who also wrote the screenplay for "Closely Watched Trains.") Jan may be immensely likable but his innocence lacks a moral compass. He falls in love with a Sudeten German woman, Líza (Julia Jentsch), who is so enamored of Hitler that she keeps a large portrait of him in her bedroom, the better to oversee her erotic bliss. She only agrees to marry Jan when doctors confirm his Aryan bloodlines.
Later, as World War II ensues and Líza volunteers to work as a nurse on the Eastern front, Jan finds himself working in a hotel that has become, literally, a breeding ground for nubile blond German women and the Aryan soldiers who service them.
Jan's greatest attribute, and greatest failing, is that he likes to give pleasure unconditionally. This is why he is such a good waiter and such an attentive lover. But it is also why he heedlessly falls in with the Nazis. He accepts Líza's devotion to Hitler because, as he sees it, she is serving the most powerful head waiter of them all. Menzel loves Jan too much to savage him, but the meaning here is clear: Innocence is no excuse. Jan does not fit the part of a villain, which makes his unintended villainy even more insidious.
He realizes his dream of becoming a wealthy hotelier thanks to a cache of rare stamps Líza stole from homes abandoned by Polish Jews. But when Hitler gives way to Stalin, Jan's resplendent establishment is taken over by the Communists, who hold his wealth against him and imprison him with the other millionaires. Now at last Jan lives in the company of the men he has idealized – except that they regard him as an outsider, an interloper, in this society. It's the final humiliation.
Menzel's flashback framing device distracts us from the narrative line of young Jan's odyssey. This might not be so bad if the older Jan's story was equally compelling, but it's not. (Although the two actors who play Jan share a resemblance, they seem unalike in every other way.) In all other respects, this is a near-perfect fable.
Menzel's touch might be termed "magical realism" but for the fact that it carries none of the weighty metaphorics of that overworked phrase. When Jan festoons his lovers' nude bodies with flowers, we are looking at a fantasy made real – the apotheosis of desire rewarded. And when the cavorting blondes break into dance at that fancy hotel, it's as if Mel Brooks had merged with Leni Riefenstahl. It's a giddy nightmare. Nothing is quite what it seems in "I Served the King of England," and this is poetically appropriate. The world it depicts is too dangerous and too lovely to classify. Grade: A (Rated R for sexual content and nudity.)