I Served the King of England
To 1960s American audiences, Milos Forman and Jirí Menzel were the Czech new wave. And while Forman eventually immigrated to America and won multiple Oscars, Menzel--whose 1967 dark comedy Closely Watched Trains remains a gem--practically disappeared from world cinema. His 2006 I Served the King of England appears to be his first movie to receive U.S. distribution since his 1990 Larks on a String. Like Larks and Trains, King is adapted from a novel by the late Czech satirist Bohumil Hrabal and freely mixes absurd humor, frank sexuality, and comic bleakness into its pseudo-historical narrative. Childishly playful and soberly critical, it ends up feeling like a gorgeous petit four with a fishhook buried inside. Hollywood rarely, if ever, makes comedies this mirthfully anarchic.
It opens with the aged Jan Dite (Oldrich Kaiser) being released from a Prague prison in the '60s (he was sentenced to 15 years, but because of amnesty he only had to serve 14 years and 9 months). He's cast off to a rural village where German settlers lived during WWII, and while there he flashes back to why he went to prison, when the young Dite (Ivan Barney) dreamed of becoming a millionaire with his own hotel when he was just a wiener salesboy at the train depot in the 1930s.
King spends most of its time in these fanciful flashbacks, which allows Menzel to unleash a torrent of tongue-in-cheek visual puns, casual jokes, daft cinematic allusions, and loony set pieces. Young Dite's ascent from wiener boy to bar back to hotel servant to front waiter at Prague's best hotel parallels the rise of Nazi Germany and its eventual occupation of Czechoslovakia, but Menzel (and, especially, Hrabal) aren't interested in throwing dull darts at obvious targets. Instead, Barney's Dite becomes a Chaplinesque clown stumbling through the 20th century's tragic carnival and toward his own incriminating doom by navel-gazing solipsism. That the movie doesn't come out and condemn collaboration by simple-minded apathy isn't a fault, merely a product of satire that takes aim every target available.
Which Menzel hits with bull's-eye accuracy practically the entire way through: an upmarket hotel brothel that keeps snowballs in a portable freezer so that the guests can have snowball fights on a glorious spring day; Dite's habit of tossing his spare change on the ground to watch the upstanding bourgeoisie scrounge for it; and, perhaps the most daft visual gag, the young, blond, Slavic Dite--a very diminutive man--sporting a Hitler mustache and literally becoming a bumbling Aryan clown in the F%uFFFDhrer's image. Nothing particularly comes of all this bawdy mischief--in fact, King concludes on a feeble fairy-tale note--but the journey is so much fun you almost don't miss the spry anger that would have accompanied something like this in the '70s. Almost.