Jan Dite (Ivan Barnev), the antihero of I Served the King of England, is a waiter who knows how to make dishes appear ripe and wonderful. They include his succession of lovers, whose naked bodies he adorns with flowers and fruit and (at his most vulgar) currency.
Dite's trademark seductive move is an act of post-seduction: He rouses his sated bedmates with a mirror that displays them when they're fully garnished. It's his appreciation of lovemaking and his playfulness at it that keeps them coming back for more. He's not a thoughtful man, but he knows, instinctively, that people cease to be completely human when they fail to give private pleasures their due.
As he hones his talents during the rise of the Third Reich and keeps practicing them while Hitler annexes the Sudetenland and then takes all of Czechoslovakia, Dite comes to be the worst kind of escapist: the kind who diddles while his country burns. We know he's doomed when he takes a German wife and she tilts his head during sex so she can focus on a portrait of Hitler.
Working from a novel and script by Bohumil Hrabal, director Jiri Menzel again achieves a seriocomic triumph, as he did with his Oscar-winning 1966 adaptation of Hrabal's Closely Watched Trains. The brilliance of the film is that it consistently makes its points through comedy. It never ceases to be funny, albeit in a saturnine way, when, for example, Aryan blonds take over a Czech hotel for a Nazi eugenics experiment. (Amputees and other war-wounded later supplant them.)
The movie has the form of a coming-of-age story, but the core joke is that Dite never comes of age at all. A twee fellow who looks as if he could play Peter Pan (or even Tinker Bell), he abandons his youthful ambition - he originally just wants to sell frankfurters - and decides he'd rather become a millionaire. En route, he learns excellent service skills from a maitre d'hotel at a deluxe art deco establishment who chalks up his own wisdom about how to read and gratify customers to one simple fact: "I served the king of England."
For anyone who enjoys pronouncements so all-encompassing they verge on balderdash or non sequitur, that statement grows more uproarious with every repetition (especially in Martin Huba's suavely self-satisfied delivery).
I Served the King of England is about the destructive force of habits, the elegant beauty of rituals, and how both can foster complacency or corruption. Early on, Dite learns to relish tossing change all over a restaurant floor and watching rich men reflexively go after it. But Dite also becomes a featured acrobat in meals that are choreographic stunts. If these balancing acts turn disastrous when a waiter dumps his tray or stumbles, they can also become exhilarating when ecstatic diners crash through protocol.
When distinguished Europeans sit down with the Ethiopian emperor and his contingent for an exotic meal, the proper burgers break into an ecstatic waltz, their bellies swaying with a joyous grace. Later, when the tiny emperor attempts to bequeath a medal to the head of the staff, the diminutive Dite is the only one who's reachable. Opportunism, too, is part of this movie's recipe for material success and ethical drift.
Dite's saving grace is that he has no illusions, unlike the Nazis and the Communists. When it comes to politics, Menzel's movie declares a plague on all your houses. Except, of course, their kitchens and their dining rooms.
I Served the King of England
(Sony Pictures Classics) Starring Ivan Barnev, Julia Jentsch, Martin Huba. Directed by Jiri Menzel. Rated R for sexual content and nudity. Time 120 minutes. In Czech and German with English subtitles.