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I Served The King Of England
cast: Barnev, Oldrich Kaiser, Julia Jentsch, and Martin Huba

writer and director: Jiri Menzel

114 minutes (15) 2006
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Arrow DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 6/10
reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont
In 1967, the Czech director Jiri Menzel won the best foreign language film Oscar for his adaptation of Bohumil Hrabal's black coming-of-age comedy Closely Watched Trains. Forty years later, the now venerable director returns to Hrabal for another black comedy entitled I Served The King Of England.

The film begins with Jan Dite (Oldrich Kaiser) being released from a communist prison and sent to live in the middle of a forest so that he might keep the gravel road in good condition. While Dite may be an old man, he still has a roaming eye and it soon latches on to an attractive and flirtatious young girl who, along with her travelling companion, seeks out trees that might be made into musical instruments. Filled with desire, Dite is reminded of his lustful youth.

Starting off as a sausage seller at a railway station, young Dite (Ivan Barnev) soon realises that while money can make a person powerful, it also exerts a power over people; forcing them to debase themselves in its pursuit. Indeed, throughout the film, Dite throws his loose change on the floor for the pleasure of watching people wealthier than him grubbing around on the floor on their hands and knees. Dite lands a job in a local brasserie where the town's wealthier middle class-types drink beer and eat fine food. Realising that these wealthy men are able to afford to sleep with beautiful prostitutes, Dite sets about ruthlessly climbing the greasy poll; learning everything he can from mentor and hustling for tips before completely alienating the rest of the staff and being forced to move on.

Trading in the middle class brasserie for a luxurious country hotel full of fine food and beautiful prostitutes and then trading up again to the prestigious Hotel Paris, Dite eventually finds his match in Skrivanek (Martin Huba), the Maitre d'Hotel of the Paris who once served the King of England. A consummate servant, Skrivanek speaks many languages and is able to work out a patron's desires without even asking. Dite's encounters with old Prague's super rich convince him that he should not be content to serve; instead he should rather like to own a place and become a millionaire himself. This desire is bolstered by Dite falling in love with one of Czechoslovakia's ethnic Germans, a devout but pretty Nazi named Liza (Julia Jentsch). Sensing the direction of the wind following the annexation of Czechoslovakia's sudetenland, Dite lands himself a job at an Aryan breeding centre while Skrivanek is carted off by the Gestapo for refusing to kowtow to a local SS thug.

As the war turns against the Germans, the naked blonde courtesans of the breeding centre are replaced by naked German amputees recovering from their injuries. Liza enlists in the German army and heads off to war, returning with a load of stamps stolen from some emptied Jewish homes. Finally happy, Dite sees out the end of the war and buys himself a hotel only to have it taken away from him by the communists. Uncharacteristically unable to work out that the communists are shaking him down, Dite protests that they have it wrong... he does own the hotel and he does have millions in the bank. For his lack of foresight, Dite is sent off to prison for 15 years.

As a picaresque work, I Served The King Of England is primarily a vehicle for social satire. By writing about rogues living by their wits in corrupt societies, picaresque authors such as Benvenuto Cellini, Francisco de Quevedo and Charles Dickens hoped to expose the corruption of society by pointing out not only its rules but also making it clear that these are the types of societies in which their frequently morally degenerate protagonists can make fortune for themselves. Dite is undeniably a picaro as he is entirely lacking in moral scruples or loyalty and he seeks constantly to advance himself through any means possible including collaborating with the Nazis.

Unfortunately, the film actually fails to be satirical. Instead of coming to grips with Czech society of that period, Menzel contents himself with portraying the burghers of Prague as a bunch of grasping brigands who do little aside eat large meals, drink fine wines and fornicate with prostitutes. Forgive me for saying this but this is hardly a scathing critique. Menzel wraps the film in soft-lighting and amusing Amélie-style whimsy and fills the screen with an endless procession of frequently nameless naked women. There is no sense of Czech society being corrupt at all as poor people, betrayed wives or the starving dispossessed simply do not feature. Dite may well be a rogue from our perspective but he is identical to al of the other characters and none of his actions have any real repercussions.

Also unfortunate is the film's pseudo-redemptive scenes set in the 1960s. The older Dite looks back on his youthful indiscretions and realises quite how immoral and stupid he was but there is no desire for redemption in these scenes merely a sense of an old man ruffling the hair of his younger self, calling him a scamp and getting on with his life. Because obviously making friends with Nazis is just youthful high spirits. Many of the original picaresque novels featured redemptive endings and strong religious tendencies but while Menzel seems to acknowledge the demands of the literary form, he has little interest in actually going through the motions.

I Served The King Of England is a light and insubstantial piece of fluff full of the kind of physical humour that feels like an homage to silent film and vaudeville and the kind of soft-focus asexual nudity that once characterised the Carry On films. Indeed, despite the film's atmosphere of heady sensuality, the film itself is clearly queasy about the actual physical act. Dite may well seduce gorgeous women but once he gets them naked his only desire seems to be to cover them with flowers. The only actual orgasms in the film are ugly medical things in which Nazis lovelessly extract Dite's semen for the purposes of the Third Reich. The references to the Second World War attempt to give the film some kind of moral and political gravitas but they are under-written and utterly swamped by the clear enjoyment Menzel got from making a film about a young scamp who hustles for money and beds beautiful women without ever actually shagging them.
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