A bent kind of trifle, a semi-translatable parable about the hazards of getting along by going along, I Served the King of England is a Central European comedy about pandering, smiling subservience to whatever class is ruling. There is no malice to it. It's possible that some people, perhaps those who are deeply entrenched in a hospitality-industry training program, might not even suspect the film has an edge.
I Served also has the pre-morality of silent comedy, including a little chap's unscrupulous climb to the top followed by a fall caused by too much trust in the status quo.
It's a simple fact of cinema that no one looks trustworthy in a blonde mustache. Ivan Barnev, as Jan Dite, grows one as sign of his rising status as a waiter. He advances from an under-waiter at a provincial bar to the counter at the best hotel in Prague. As the movie begins and ends, he's running a dusty gasthaus in the forest. He tells his life story to his friends, about his years of swanking it about in Prague. There's a Munchausian touch to his reminiscence. He once personally served a banquet of roast camel to the emperor of Ethiopia, a shorty in a tarboosh, who honored him with a sash and a medal. He still has it, and it hangs on his small frame like the sword and braid on Buster Keaton in The General.
Jan's acumen with a tray and a bottle of wine made him famous, but he also specialized in the arrangement of the goodies waiting upstairs for the regular customers: girls wheeled out on lazy Susans or decorated with delicacies like flower petals, slices of fruit and, especially, money. And then—always minding his role as a servant—he holds up a mirror to the reclining ladies, like Cupid in a Renaissance painting, letting these Venuses see themselves.
After the Reich acquires Czechoslovakia, Jan gets involved with a cute, ardent Nazi (Julia Jentsch) who gets inhabited by the spirit of der Führer, Exorcist-style.
As in the creamy Lubitsch comedies it echoes, I Served has plenty of babes. As the feminist cartoonist Colleen Coover put it, "Pretty girls make people happy." If that principle seems too boneheaded to you (it's sure working for John McCain), it's probably best to avoid this Czech movie. Director Jíri Menzel is wry about the connivance between curvy tarts and the mustached old men who hire them. Much of the film is like that scene in Some Like It Hot where the row of millionaires in rocking chairs start rocking harder when Marilyn sashays by "like jello on springs." While providing an array of actresses in fetching '30s summer clothes, Menzel counterpoints by hinting at the corrosion of a society from too many sweets. This tendency is, of course, brutally overcorrected by the pious communists.
The film is a droll view of a country with two terrible occupiers, and it shows how the spirit survived even after the borders capsized. The area is still dependent on the service industry; the Pilsner Urquell product placement in this movie is as omnipresent—and as chic—as the Stella Artois ads in a Landmark Theater. I Served the King of England is slightly silly but a very succulent movie. It has the sensible idea that one can counter the nightmare of history with fervent dreams of bare skin and thick frosting.
'I Served the King of England' opens Friday, Sept. 19, at Rialto Cinemas Lakeside, 551 Summerfield Road, Santa Rosa. 707.525.4840.
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