Movie Review: 'I Served the King of England' chronicles disastrous and marvelous

“Closely Watched Trains,” a 1966 Czech film by director Jirí Menzel, won the Academy Award and the Golden Globe Award for Best Foreign Language feature.

According to the blurb on the Criterion Collection DVD release of the movie, “Closely Watched Trains” is an often comic coming-of-age tale about a young man in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia who remains “oblivious to the war and the resistance that surrounds him” as he “embarks on a journey of sexual awakening and self-discovery, encountering a universe of frustration, eroticism, and adventure...”

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A busboy with an inferiority complex and a driving ambition to become a millionaire, quickly rises to become a head waiter, but the respect he ...

Rating: R for sexual content and nudity

Length: 120 minutes

Released: August 29, 2008 Limited

Cast: Ivan Barnev, Oldrich Kaiser, Julia Jentsch, Martin Huba, Marián Labuda

Director: Jirí Menzel

Writer: Bohumil Hrabal, Jirí Menzel

More info and showtimes »

Menzel’s latest film, “I Served the King of England,” revisits these themes from the wry perspective of an older man looking back on his ridiculous yet somehow satisfying life. (Menzel turned 70 this year.) Like “Closely Watched Trains,” the movie is adapted from a novel by the late Czech author, Bohumil Hrabal.

Oldrich Kaise plays Dité (his name means “child,” in Czech), who is released from prison after serving “only” 14 years and nine months of a 15-year sentence. Moving into an abandoned and ruined pub, he recalls his pre-imprisonment life as a diminutive young frankfurter vendor (Ivan Barnev) who becomes upwardly mobile not by entering society himself but by getting jobs at a series of increasingly ritzy and well-established hotels. Envying the rich people he serves, he observes: “I discovered that those who said ‘Work is ennobling’ were the same men who drank all night and ate with lovely young ladies on their knees.”

During his ascent, he also beds a wide variety of beautiful women, eventually falling for a pretty young Nazi (Julia Jentsch) who has his Czech blood tested for suitable “Aryan” qualities before she will have sex with him. They marry, and Dité and his bride relocate to a luxury hotel that has been converted into “a selective human breeding center” for the Master Race, where nude blond nymphs frolic poolside like Loreleis of the Rhine as they await the stud services of suitable SS officers. Eventually, even the naive and self-centered Dité can’t ignore the evil of the Nazis, although he seems motivated more by injured pride than by his conscience, when he realizes his wife can’t keep her eyes off her framed portrait of Hitler during their lovemaking.

“I Served the King of England” has a distinctly Eastern European sensibility, born from centuries of political upheaval, war and — on the plus side — good beer. The movie is both respectful and irreverent toward learning and art; it celebrates the pleasures of life while acknowledging its absurdity. Its attitude might be described as good natured fatalism. Menzel’s story chronicles the disastrous, but his camera lingers on the marvelous: topless women; delicious meals; elegant tableware; foamy mugs of brew.

The movie is buoyed by the elfin presence of lead actor Ivan Barnev, a “shrimp” with the malleable face, cocky attitude and bouncy athleticism of a Mack Sennett comedian; in fact, an early scene is presented as a parody of a silent two-reeler. The film never loses the rogue spirit that Barnev embodies.

In Czech with English subtitles, “I Served the King of England” is playing exclusively at Malco’s Ridgeway Four.

— John Beifuss, 529-2394

© 2008 Go Memphis. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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