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'I Served The King': Smooth Operator, With Issues

Waiter Jan (Ivan Barnev, left) is honored with the opportunity to serve the Emperor of Ethiopia (Tonya Graves, front right). Martin Spelda/Sony Pictures Classics hide caption

toggle caption Martin Spelda/Sony Pictures Classics

Waiter Jan (Ivan Barnev, left) is honored with the opportunity to serve the Emperor of Ethiopia (Tonya Graves, front right).

Martin Spelda/Sony Pictures Classics

I Served The King Of England

  • Director: Jirí Menzel
  • Genre: Picaresque
  • Running Time: 120 minutes

Rated R: Buxom blondes in brothels, and other scenes of excess.

Surrounded by luxury, Jan determines to be a have rather than a have-not one day. Martin Spelda/Sony Pictures Classics hide caption

toggle caption Martin Spelda/Sony Pictures Classics

Surrounded by luxury, Jan determines to be a have rather than a have-not one day.

Martin Spelda/Sony Pictures Classics

I Served the King of England, an audacious new film from veteran Czech writer-director Jiri Menzel, feels something like an Eastern European Forrest Gump, in that it follows a naive young man through a tumultuous era.

But the movie's protagonist is not so innocent as his American counterpart — and the times he experiences are much harsher.

It begins at a Prague prison, where Jan Dite (Oldrich Kaiser) has just been released after serving almost 15 years for the anti-Communist offense of having achieved his life's goal: becoming a millionaire.

As the older Jan considers his past, the story rewinds to his early days, when he sold hot dogs at the train station and cagily pocketed the change. It's the beginning of Jan's love for cash and its power.

Played by Ivan Barnev, the younger Jan Dite is a diminutive man with boyish blond hair. (His surname means "child.") Working his way up as a waiter, Jan eventually finds a job at the city's swankiest hotel, where the maitre d' displays a near-psychic understanding of his clientele. (Asked why, he explains simply that "I served the king of England.")

The food and wine Jan serves are superlative, although the movie's gourmands delight above all in Czech beer. And when not waiting tables, Jan charms the pretty hookers who entertain the hotel's obscenely wealthy guests.

The waiter's dalliances with charming women of delightfully easy morals come to an end, however, when he meets Lise (Julia Jentsch), an earnest young phys-ed teacher who's intensely proud of her Germanic ethnicity. She conquers Jan, which means Hitler's not far behind.

The German army claims Czechoslovakia, Lise goes off to war, and Jan finds himself returning to a country hotel where he used to work — only now it's a Teutonic breeding center, and Jan is the only man among a bevy of frequently nude blonde beauties. Eugenics may have been deadly serious to Hitler, but to Menzel it's just another variety of old-fashioned sex farce.

Jan Dite is a Chaplin-like figure, and Menzel plays on the kinship, even rendering one early scene like a silent comedy, complete with black-and-white images and intertitles. Even when the homage is less direct, the film seldom wanders far from slapstick.

Slinking in and out of scenes, and always proffering his hand at the ideal moment for a tip, Barnev gives a marvelously physical performance. The framing story that shows the older Jan's new life slows the film's manic energy, but its contemplativeness is fitting.

The film was adapted from a novel by Bohumil Hrabal, whose work was also the source of Closely Watched Trains, Menzel's 1967 foreign-film Oscar winner. Both movies consider the lives of everyday Czechs who had no ideological stake in World War II, but the new one is more acerbic and less sentimental.

Ultimately, I Served the King of England concludes that little is more enduring than beer; a mere world war isn't enough to distract Menzel's Czech everyman from the essentials of his culture. Yet the director doesn't neglect the perennial role of ethnic and class hatred. While stressing the absurdity of 20th-century European history, the film always keeps the horrors in mind. (Recommended)

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