I Served the King of England
Whimsical Slovakian history lesson lives to serve
I Served the King of England
Directed by JirÌ Menzel
Cast: Oldrich Kaiser, Ivan Barnev
An uncategorizable but irresistible bit of whimsy from the Czech Republic, I Served the King of England rewinds its way through several decades of Eastern Europe’s political and social history as seen through the eyes of one single-minded service industry professional.
We meet our protagonist, Jan Díte (Oldrich Kaiser), as he is released from prison in Prague after 15 years of confinement. (Díte’s nonstop narration cheerfully notes that he got out in only 14 years 9 months due to good behavior.) From there, Díte is shipped off to an isolated mountain town abandoned by German immigrants after World War II. Working off his debt to society amid a hardscrabble community of rebels and castoffs from Czechoslovakia’s Communist government, Díte reflects on his storied life.
Shrimpy, but determined from a young age to make a big impression, young Díte (played in flashback by the expressive Ivan Barnev) makes a personal vow to become a millionaire. His chosen path of success? Serving the people of Czechoslovakia: first as a hot dog salesman, then as a bartender in a small tavern, then as a waiter at a private brothel and finally as the maître d' in a posh Prague restaurant.
Though Díte’s goals are materialistic, they’re tempered by his innate innocence and ingenuousness. His dream is to actually earn his money by becoming the ultimate servant, making his mark by guessing every patron’s wishes and catering to them with perfect timing and civility. Díte’s rise through the ranks of the restaurant business is carried out with a sublime sense of wit. One sequence, involving not the King of England but the Emperor of Ethiopia, falls somewhere between the Marx Brothers and the Coen brothers.
Early on, Díte learns a lesson that good servants see without seeing and hear without hearing. This mantra allows the near-invisible Díte uncensored access to a good three decades of Czechoslovakia’s changing fortunes. Starting out in the early 1900s, I Served the King of England plays out like a carefree adaptation of The Great Gatsby crossed with Amélie.
The opulent, gilt-covered salons and dining halls of Prague are rendered even more beautifully surreal by longtime actor/director Jirí Menzel (who won the Oscar 40 years ago for Closely Watched Trains). Mixing in elements of silent film comedy whenever the mood strikes, taking off on several lush visual flights of fancy and painting even history’s darker moments with a bright brush, I Served the King of England plays out like a cinematic fairy tale for adults.
Start to finish, the film revels in a sumptuous parade of sins—from avarice to lust to gluttony to vanity. And yet, they’re all so innocuously appealing here. Díte could have been an unsympathetic protagonist if not for his smiling naïveté. Sure, he logs a lot of time under the sheets with high-class prostitutes—but his favored bedroom activity is decorating the women’s bodies with money, flowers, food, whatever’s available. Sure, he hoards money in an ambitious quest to become a millionaire—but his secret joy is tossing pocket change onto the floor and watching rich men scramble for it.
Only when Czechoslovakia enters the early days of World War II does Díte’s picaresque life take on a somewhat darker tone. He falls in love with a German girl—not for political reasons, mind you, but because she’s just his size—and ends up selling out his countrymen for a new clientele of big-tipping Aryans. Díta’s eventual comeuppance at the hands of Czechoslovakia’s Soviet takeover gives the film a tidy moral symmetry.
I Served the King of England isn’t your standard-issue comedy. It’s a lush, lighthearted film that finds nobility in servitude, humor in nudist Nazi breeding facilities and redemption in the simple art of pouring a beer.