Director: Jirí Menzel
2007 Chicago International Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Sometimes ignorance is bliss. I guess I should be ashamed of never having heard of Bohumil Hrabal, the novelist who wrote I Served the King of England (1971), considered by many to be one of the greatest works of Czech literature. Having never heard of Hrabal, it follows that I never read the book either. It seems that those who have were disappointed with this adaptation by Jirí Menzel, a film interpreter of five other works by Hrabal, including Closely Watched Trains, which won the Best Foreign-Language Picture Oscar in 1966. According to Kate Connelly, a film critic for the UK’s Guardian Unlimited, “The film has been attracting large audiences across the Czech Republic, but even there critics have admitted to its long-winded and sugary nature.”
I think I know what those flocks of audience members know—this film is a visual and emotional pleasure of the first order. If it does not live up to the lofty ambitions of the culture mavens who report on it or capture something edgier in the book (which I suspect it doesn’t), it certainly does create a sensuous, sumptuous world all its own. And after all, how often have all of us heard, “It’s not as good as the book.” Putting it in its true context—film—it is as good as the best films I’ve seen at this year’s festival, and that’s saying a lot.
I Served the King of England traverses the fascinating and full life of Jan Dítě (Oldřich Kaiser). The tale begins at the gate of a prison where a voiceover by Dítě tells that this is the day of his release. He was sentenced to 15 years, but due to a general amnesty, only served 14 years and 9 months. We watch as Dítě walks through the prison gate. The gate slams shut behind him, catching the strap of Dítě’s bag. We leave this scene with Dítě banging on the metal door to open up again. The smile this scene put on my face never left until the more serious parts of the film kicked in at about the halfway mark.
Dítě has been given the keys to a property near the border between Czechoslovakia and East Germany. When he arrives, an abandoned, ramshackle pub stands before him. The door is broken. Dítě holds up the keys and tosses them away. He steadily cleans the place up and makes it habitable, intending eventually to reopen it as a pub and guesthouse. He crushes rocks himself to build a road. While he is wheeling the rocks, he encounters Marcela (Zuzana Fialová), a young woman who has accompanied a small group to the woods surrounding the pub to look for music in trees, that is, timber to build musical instruments. Marcela is attractive and flirtatious, and Dítě is pleased that she has managed to arouse passion in him after all those years in confinement. He returns to memories of his youth and his one desire in life—to become a millionaire.
Most of the film from this point on is told in flashback with Ivan Barnev playing the young Dítě. He’s a very short, very blonde, odd-looking fellow who begins to build his fortune in the 1920s by failing to make change for a hundred for a train passenger who buys a hot dog from his makeshift stand. The train pulls away while Dítě pursues the passenger with the bills in his outstretched hand. He also inadvertently drops some coins on the ground. Several people scramble to pick them up. Fascinated by the willingness of perfectly respectable people to get down on their hands and knees for the sake of a few coins, Dítě starts tossing handfuls of them around town just to see the reaction.
He eventually lands a job in a guesthouse where he serves businessmen who have the money he covets. One day, a beautiful woman seeks shelter from the rain in his pub. Her name is Jaruska (Petra Hrebícková), a hooker at Paradise, the local brothel. All eyes are on her wet and shapely form. After giving the men an eyeful, she skips back out. Dítě determines to make her his. A virgin, Dítě says after his first time that “it’s nothing like doing it myself.” He visits her as frequently as possible, delighting her one day by covering her body artfully with flowers from a nearby vase. This type of decoration will become his playful art of love with all of the women he beds.
One day, a familiar face confronts Dítě from one of the booths in the pub. It is the man whose change he didn’t make, a certain Mr. Walden (Marián Labuda) who will turn out to be his benefactor throughout his career. Walden orders everything on the menu except the lungs and tells Dítě to bring four bottles of mineral water and a pound of salami up to his room later. Dítě thinks he’s off the hook about the change he failed to make, but Walden has not forgotten the incident. He tells Dítě that he’s seen him throwing coins. “You have to learn where to throw them so they’ll come back to you in bills.” When Dítě goes to his room to deliver the water and salami, he (and we) are greeted by a magical sight—Walden placing paper money in long rows to cover his entire floor. In a scene of comic grace, Walden, having run out of one stack of bills, stretches out and log rolls to a suitcase, where he removes another stack and rolls back to resume his pastime. Dítě, enchanted, decides to take up the pastime of laying his bills on the floor and leaves the guesthouse to make his fortune.
He lands a job at the Hotel Tichota on Walden’s recommendation and serves the needs of the very rich and hedonistic, all under the watchful eye of Tichota (Rudolf Hrusínský), a small and pleasant fellow who wheels gracefully through the hotel in a motorized wheelchair. Tichota makes available a bevy of gorgeous prostitutes who pair off with the moguls, dancing, playing, teasing, and making love with them with delightful abandon. The General (Pavel Nový) brings his girl up to his room, sees another coming down the hall, turns her around to examine front and back, and pushes her into his room as well. In the morning, thoroughly “satisfied,” he pays for about 4,000 crowns worth of damage and, when left with a large stack of unspent bills, hands them to Dítě. “I knew it would be time to go,” Dítě observes ruefully.
He lands an even better job in the Hotel Pariz in Prague and meets the man who will be his great inspiration, Skrivánek (Martin Huba), the maitre d’. The man can predict what every patron will order and can apparently speak every language known to man. Dítě wonders how he became such a Hercules of the hospitality industry. “I served the King of England.”
Sadly, hard times are soon to come. When the first Nazis show up in the dining room of the Hotel Pariz, Skrivánek refuses to serve them. Germans in the street are hassled, their uniform knee-high white stockings torn from their legs. Dítě goes to the aid of a young German woman whose stockings are in jeopardy, Líza (Julia Jentsch). They start a romance, with Líza trying to instruct poor Dítě on racial purity and Hitler’s master plan. Once Czechoslovakia capitulates to Hitler, property confiscations and deportations begin to occur. Dítě searches for evidence that he might have German blood so that he can marry Líza. Although tormented by the fate of his countrymen, he wants Líza, who’s the only woman short enough that he can look her in the eye.
The film grows more grim as Dítě sees old friends deported, the hotel Tichota confiscated and turned into a breeding laboratory for the Master Race, and Líza taking all the fun out of sex with her determination to provide a perfect Aryan to Herr Hitler. A scene where she and Dítě try to conceive is hilarious, as Líza moves Dítě’s head out of the way so that she can gaze on a heroic portrait of Hitler hanging on the wall. Dítě’s fortunes rise and fall during and after the war, but Communism puts him right back to square one.
This film is literally a visual feast. If you go to see it hungry, you’ll be chewing your arm witnessing all the lavish meals served at all the fine establishments where Dítě works. There are some transcendent moments of visual trickery, such as when Dítě the elder empties a box of stamps and they float lifelike on the breeze. The Czechs do sexual playfulness extremely well, and each act of physical love is a rather complete and innocent delight, even between Dítě and Líza.
Physical comedy abounds, such as when the Ethiopian ambassador, shorter even than Dítě, tries to place medals around Skrivánek’s neck in thanks for an exotic and sumptuous banquet and ends up awarding them to Dítě, who slowly bends his knees to clue Skrivánek to move to meet the ambassador’s eye level. Dítě and Head Waiter Karel (Jaromír Dulava) dip, spin, and weave in quick motion with their trays full of food as they serve their patrons in the Hotel Pariz. When Dítě trips Karel, and Karel loses one plate from his tray, he proceeds to smash plates and upend tables on his way to the exit. He grabs a small bud vase, ready to smash it, then looks tenderly at it, replaces it on the table, and leaves. “He had no choice,” says Dítě in voiceover, “it was a matter of honor.”
Líza’s character was, for me, the most horrifying in the film. Her reflexive racism, her rabid devotion to German purity, and her utter callousness in robbing from “deported” Jews all made me cringe every time she opened her mouth. Dítě is ambitious, but he is also playful and clearly revolted by the Nazis and their occupation of his country. Why he jumped through so many hoops for his Nazi lover, why he wanted to marry her in the first place, remain complete mysteries to me. The critics who called this film “sugary” may have been referring to this inconsistency. The rich men who made women their playthings and indulged their every whim also were more lovable than decadent. As seen through narrator Dítě’s eyes, however, these men were his heroes and role models, so this characterization is not inconsistent.
This densely packed film moves with the grace, speed, and charm of Dítě twirling his tray of delectables. I highly recommend I Served the King of England.