Here's a thought experiment: Imagine if Forrest Gump took place in Czechoslovakia during the first half of the 20th century. Would Tom Hanks' blessed fool have fared differently if, instead of the American baby boom, he lived through the heights of Bohemian decadence, followed by Nazi and Communist takeovers?
Possibly not. Forrest's dedication to his idealized sweetheart sees him safely from one misfortune to another. Jiri Menzel's I Served the King of England offers a darker but comparable premise as it follows another naïve protagonist through the ups and downs of Czech history. In its celebration of both physical comedy and physical beauty, I Served the King of England presents a feast for the eyes, even as it builds to a stealthy but stinging critique of moral blindness.
The film begins as diminutive Jan Dité (whose last name means "child") leaves prison as an old man (Oldrich Kaiser) and sets off for a new life in the Czech woods. As he recalls his past, Bulgarian-born Ivan Barnev plays Dité as a younger man, and the first flashback emulates the style of a black-and-white silent movie. Dité serves hot dogs at a train station, but his good intentions lead to slapstick mishaps. Barnev comes across as a natural heir to silent-movie comedians such as Charlie Chaplin, mastering the kind of body language that's alternately cartoonish and graceful.
Dité takes pleasure in prankishly throwing coins to watch people crawl after them, no matter how rich or dignified they may be. But Dité aspires to be a millionaire, too, and fantasizes about bank notes drifting from the sky like pennies from heaven. Gliding unflappably from one table to another, he works his way up as a waiter in several establishments, including a corner pub, a rural hotel/brothel for rich guys and eventually a gourmet restaurant at Prague's Hotel Paris.
His claims to be unlucky are belied by his success in the boudoir with gorgeous women, whose naked bodies he decorates with flowers and other adornments. At one point he serves milk to a bevy of nude blondes by a pool, suggesting that Barnev may actually be the luckiest actor alive. I Served the King of England's photography luxuriates in ripe bodies and delicious meals, not unlike the pre-politically correct pleasure principle of "Mad Men."
The film's first half serves such frothy humor that you may not notice its darker implications. Dité, however gentlemanly, seldom thinks of women as more than sex objects, so he fails to register the character flaws of a young German named Liza (Julia Jentsch). They fall for each other when he saves her from Czech bullies, despite her staunch admiration for Hitler and belief in racial purity. Their consummation offers a raunchy metaphor for Germany taking over Czechoslovakia, and Dité, an unreflective collaborator, takes a job at an Aryan breeding facility until the history's twists give him his just desserts.
Menzel, director of the Oscar-winning 1966 film Closely Watched Trains, gradually alters the film's photographic style, with the soft, creamy cinematography giving way to earth tones and sharper focus as the waking nightmare of Nazi rule replaces hazy nostalgia. As an old man, Dité finally gains some self-awareness, although Kaiser's bittersweet smile may be a bit too serene to indicate the guilt and shame the character should feel. Overall, Menzel approaches the story with the sardonic wit of such fellow Czechs as novelist Milan Kundera and playwright-turned-president Vaclav Havel.
The title might mislead viewers. At one point Dité asks the Hotel Paris' impeccable maitre'd (Martin Huba), a veritable god among the waitstaff, how he got so good. He replies, with both smugness and affection, "I served the king of England," an impressive reply that doesn't really answer the question, but hints at a rarefied atmosphere of class and perfection. Menzel's film also seems to exist on a similarly exalted plane. Amélie may be the last European film I can recall that struck such a transcendent tone of whimsy and wisdom.