September 23rd, 2008

Chris Keeley

I Served the King of England

 by David Denby 
I Served the King of England
iří Menzel’s “I Served the King of England” is a Czech national epic served up with champagne and truffles. This graceful and leisurely movie, adapted from a 1974 novel by the masterly Bohumil Hrabal, covers an enormous time span, starting in the nineteen-thirties, then passing through the Nazi occupation and the Communist period. It covers an enormous range of experience, too, yet the style is consistently playful, even frivolous, and slyly erotic—at times, we might be watching a burlesque operetta. Menzel, whose first adaptation of Hrabal’s work, “Closely Watched Trains,” won an Academy Award in 1967, did not emigrate to this country, as Ivan Passer and Milos Forman, his fellow-directors of the Czech film renaissance, did. Staying behind, Menzel went through myriad ups and downs in the final twenty years of Communist rule (for a while, his work was banned) and developed, I would guess, a healthy sense of the absurd, which doubtless shaped his adaptation of Hrabal’s material. The movie dramatizes the incongruities of the Czech experience by charting the unlikely progress of Jan Ditě (Ivan Barnev), a charming Everyman who is very lucky until suddenly he isn’t. Short, blond, and highly mobile, Ditě, a waiter by trade, is a cross between Candide and Forrest Gump—ever optimistic, and completely unmarked by knowledge or experience. The movie begins at the end of the story, in the nineteen-sixties, when Ditě (played, at this point, by Oldrich Kaiser) is released from a Communist prison in Prague after serving almost fifteen years for becoming a rich man, and is ordered to move to a town in Bohemia where, before the war, Sudeten Germans lived. When Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia, in 1938, “liberating” the Sudeten Germans was his initial excuse. But after the war the ethnic Germans were expelled from the area, leaving ghost towns behind. In this melancholy graveyard, Ditě, now wised up and becalmed, reviews his life.

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