An ambitious yet apolitical Czech everyman pursues his fortune as his country endures the turbulent middle decades of the last century in the beguiling, bigger-than-life black comedy “I Served the King of England.” A virtual primer on the unique mixture of self-deprecating dark humor and personal tragedy that has been the Czech cinema’s stock-in-trade since their celebrated 1960s New Wave — of which writer-helmer Jiri Menzel was a key player –will be received like royalty by fests, art-house distribs, tube buyers and shiny discmakers the world over.
Adapted, as was Menzel’s 1967 foreign-lingo Oscar-winning “Closely Watched Trains,” from a novel by Czech literary lion and long-time friend Bohumil Hrabal (who died in 1997), story has been shrewdly yet passionately shaped for the screen. Distilled to its essence for the newcomer, this is a saga of opportunism, identity, money, sex and, of course, beer. And sex.
“King” serves up the life of Jan Dite (literally, John Child), an ambitious yet vertically challenged go-getter who only desires two things out of life: to be rich and a successful hotelier. Played as an older man by Oldrich Kaiser, Jan is first seen being released from a 1950s Prague prison after a 15-year stretch imposed by the Communists, reduced to 14 years and nine months through amnesty. Relocated to an abandoned German village on the Czech border, he sets about cleaning up an old pub as he remembers, in voiceover, the ups and downs of his life. “It was always my luck,” he says, “to run into bad luck.”
Flash back to the 1930s, where Jan (played with superb physical command by Bulgarian-born thesp Ivan Barnev) is fascinated by beautiful women and the fact that everyone, rich or poor, will get on their knees to pick up coins. Through a series of picaresque adventures that prompt insightful social commentary, he steadily climbs the ladder of the hotel trade by honing his skills as a waiter for a series of smooth bosses. One, imperious maitre d’ Skrivanek (Martin Huba), when asked where he learned all that he knows, haughtily replies “I served the King of England.”
As WWII approaches and the Germans occupy Czech lands, Dite dispenses with the parade of beautiful women that have benefited from his skill at oral sex in favor of Liza (Julia Jentsch), a fervent Aryan who doesn’t marry him until he can prove German background. Later, during lovemaking she shifts his head to one side for a clear view of the Hitler portrait that looms over their bed.
When Lise is killed retrieving the box of priceless stamps she’s collected from abandoned Jewish homes during a stint at the Russian front, Jan parlays the stash into ownership of a hotel he’s worked at previously — only to be thrown into jail with the other millionaires. “A person becomes human,” he says in voiceover, “almost against his own will.”
A decade of biz wrangling over tome’s rights has only steeped Menzel’s intimate understanding of the material, as evidenced by firm tonal control that seamlessly blends the picaresque social journey of “Forrest Gump” with a silent film comedy aesthetic to soften the harsher passages. And pic’s tone is nothing if not audacious, wringing laughs from subjects that include a Nazi human breeding center. Menzel’s style fits Hrabal’s take-no-prisoners brand of social criticism like a glove
List of supporting players reps a “who’s who” of male talent, most pungent being Marian Labuda as traveling salesman Walden, whose early support of Jan’s ambition is brought full circle in the moving coda. Hungarian director Istvan Szabo has a wordless cameo as a rich industrialist. There’s nothing lecherous about the parade of beautiful women on view, all of whom are photographed as lovingly as the beer.
Tech package is tops. Despite criticism at home, pic is on track to break 800,000 admissions since mid-January domestic bow, which would make it the release to beat for 2007 popularity honors.