'I Served the King of England': What Didn't He Do in the War?

Ivan Barnev as a Czech waiter and Julia Jentsch as his Nazi wife in "I Served the King of England," a comedy set in World War II Prague.
Ivan Barnev as a Czech waiter and Julia Jentsch as his Nazi wife in "I Served the King of England," a comedy set in World War II Prague. (By Martin Spelda -- Sony Pictures Classics)
By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 12, 2008

"I Served the King of England" is a movie besotted with its own contradictions. An extravagant, visually stunning feast of sensory delights, Jiri Menzel's winsome comedy, set in World War II-era Prague, pirouettes along a beguiling but treacherous line between horror and whimsy.

The story of a young waiter's education in the ways of sex, money and power, "I Served the King of England" often evokes such icons as Jay Gatsby and Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp in its depiction of striving and innocence. But the film, adapted from a novel by Bohumil Hrabal, could only have been wrought by Czech artists, drenched in bittersweet irony as pungent and intoxicating as plum brandy.

Jan Dite (Ivan Barnev) wants only one thing in life: to be a millionaire. Living in a provincial town "between the wars," Jan will do just about anything for money, including sell sausages in a train station and work as a waiter slinging pilsner at a local pub. One of Jan's favorite pastimes is flinging a handful of coins on the floor, then watching the bigwigs he serves get down on their hands and knees to scoop them up. When he makes the acquaintance of a successful businessman, his future mentor gives him sage advice: "You have to know how to throw your change away so that it comes back in bank notes."

Jan proves an avid student, and "I Served the King of England" chronicles with sumptuous detail his picaresque journey from pub to brothel to world-class hotel in Prague.

Along the way, Jan also becomes an expert lover, seducing his conquests (each more lissome than the last) and then festooning their nude bodies with flowers and food. The title, by the way, refers not to Jan but to the maitre d' at the legendary Hotel Pariz, an architectural masterpiece of art nouveau luxury. As Jan comes up in the world, he turns a blithe blind eye to the historic changes swirling around him. When Hitler invades the Sudetenland, Jan and his Nazi girlfriend, Lise (Julia Jentsch), quickly ally with the collaborationists, inviting the ire of Jan's loyal Czech colleagues and culminating in a wedding night during which Lise keeps moving Jan's head slightly to one side, the better to keep her adoring gaze fixed on a portrait of her Fuehrer.

Jan narrates his own story as a grown man (played by the gruffly handsome Oldrich Kaiser), having endured the consequences of his younger, callow self's dubious choices. But in "I Served the King of England" revisiting the past isn't cause for recrimination or bitterness. Instead, even Jan's most appalling refusals to see beyond his own creature comforts are perceived in honeyed hues of Old World elegance, nostalgia and sexual longing.

Menzel, whose Oscar-winning 1966 film "Closely Watched Trains" was adapted from another Hrabal novel, spares nothing in reconstructing Jan's world of heedless indulgence, creating a series of mouthwatering tableaux of banquets that as often as not veer toward orgies (women and food enjoy pointedly retrograde equal status here). But scenes of rapturous beauty also give way with startling alacrity to horror, such as when a high-end brothel where Jan works changes to a clinic for eugenics (populated by perfectly blond Aryan goddesses), then to a hospital treating injured war veterans.

As arresting as such images are, "I Served the King of England" revolves around a maddeningly cipherlike protagonist. For a young man on the make (played with subtle Chaplinesque physical prowess by Barnev), Jan remains strangely passive, even inert, as he learns the rules of the game. His ethereal air of disconnection from the grubby realities of life begins to feel like something far more sinister as history raises the stakes. By one of the film's final scenes, when the older Jan sits alone in an abandoned pub surrounded by mirrors, it's clear that reflection, if not moral reckoning, is at hand. When it finally arrives, the note it sounds of healing and forgiveness is no doubt welcome, but viewers could be forgiven for wondering if it's entirely earned.

I Served the King of England (118 minutes, in Czech with subtitles, at the Avalon Theatre and AMC Loews Shirlington 7) is rated R for sexual content and nudity.

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