Jiri Menzel's "I Served the King of England": Brilliant Return to Film-making By Phillip Bergson

in 57th Berlinale

by Phillip Bergson

After 14 years spent working in theatre — at home and abroad — and acting in the films of others, Czech maestro Jiri Menzel has made a characteristically brilliant return to film-making with a sadly beautiful adaptation of Bohumil Hrabal’s masterpiece “I Served the King of England” (Obsluhoval jsem anglickeho krale). While remaining utterly faithful to the spirit of the original picaresque novel — and amply fleshing out most of the characters and racy incidents in the saga of the diminutive Dite (the literal Child, who grows from lowly waiter in a provincial 1930s Czechoslovak hostelry to owner-manager of a luxury hotel, only to suffer the reversals of the Occupation, War, and worse —the curse of Communism), the film bears all the hallmarks of its director’s best work — a panoply of comical cameos, observed with infinite affection and regret, and a wealth of wry incidents that illustrate man-and woman’s-weaknesses and follies. But like Fellini, it is obvious that Menzel delights in these slightly crazed but oh-so-human personae, and in depicting their passions and ambitions and gains and losses, he evidences not only a love for Hrabal’s creations, but an immense respect for the audience, for whom the two hours’ traffic across the screen will pass as pleasantly as a visit to old friends.

From the opening chords of Ales Brezina’s exuberant original score (attractively reminiscent of Nino Rota at the gallop), a keen sense of anticipation is evoked. The extensive voice-over retails Hrabal’s sardonic commentary as the film delicately commutes between two time periods – the bright and breezy teenage days of little Jan (in Czech his surname is literally “child”), brilliantly caught by Jaromir Sofr, Menzel’s long-time cinematographer, as he learns the ways and wiles of the world while serving beers in a rustic retreat, and the older, wiser, ex-millionaire, newly released from prison in the grey Soviet era and resettled in a borderland Bohemian village which the indigenous German population, post-War, has been invited to leave.

Sex and money seem to be the chief pursuits of the Czech entre deux guerres, and the young Honza (superbly played by the Bulgarian actor Ivan Barnev) quickly comes to understand how the one lubricates the other. With his tips purloined from short-changing customers at the railway station, on his off-days he frequents the local bordello and rapidly falls for the prettiest of the staff. As his ardour and his income grow he is obliged to head for the capital, and the Art Nouveau charms of the Hotel Pariz (managed by dapper Menzel regular, Josef Abrhám), where he falls under the tutelage of the polyglot Maitre Skrivanek (the excellent Slovak actor Martin Huba), who, as he never fails to remind Dite, once served the King of England. But at the climax of a sumptuously exotic banquet, the child overtakes the man and actually serves wine to the Emperor of Abyssinia, and is formally decorated, to the evident fury of his tutor. It is time for him to move on again.

At the heart of the film — as in the book — is the lyrical, if very slightly perverse, love between Jan and his Germanic bride, Liza (astutely — and alluringly — played by Julia Jentsch). Menzel pulls no punches in his depiction of the Nazi occupation of Prague — not just spoofing the Aryan nonsense of turning a luxury hotel into a spa for eugenicsl (ironically, the location actually filmed is the gorgeous Jewish-owned chateau at Slapy), but underlining the extent of Czech — and Slovak — collaborationism. Most of the veiled invective, however, is saved for the post-war period when — as incarnated by Ondrich Kaiser, completely convincing as the elder Jan — our “holy fool” hero is victimised by the Communists, and finds himself incarcerated for years with the very millionaires he had longed to join, rather than simply serve. Once released, a hesitant romance with a local trollop makes Dite recall his wartime truer love, and the finale of the film sees him repay a literal debt and realise that losing, rather than winning, is the true way of the world.

This is a film that is likelier to find favour with the international rather than the local audience. Hrabal purists will quibble as surely as fans of Susskind (or of any best-seller or beloved classic translated to the big screen), the older Czech generation may be unsettled by the sweet and sour political allusions (Menzel’s own career was much interfered with by the Communists), the younger not finding enough raucous slapstick as in recent Czech box-office hits (which have not percolated across too many European borders yet). But approach this is a film and you will find Menzel’s gently beguiling vision of people at their best and worst, his kaleidoscope of characters turning into la comedie humaine with effortless panache. Fleeting allusions to films of Machaty, and the vaudeville of the 1930s create a paean not only for a lost cinema, but a lost world — when the heart of Europe really lost its heart. Menzel’s return to film-making now brings a breath of fresh and welcome air to the multiplex.