Jiri Menzel founders on the shoals of whimsy in look at conscience.
By By: STEVE ERICKSON
I SERVED THE KING OF ENGLAND
Directed by Jiri Menzel
Sony Pictures Classics
In Czech with English subtitles
Opens Aug. 29
Lincoln Plaza and Quad
Now 70, Czech director Jiri Menzel has lived through World War II, the Communist takeover of Czechoslovakia, the Soviet invasion of 1968, the arrival of democracy, and the breakup of his country. All of these experiences are reflected in his work — censorship led to the 1969 banning of his second film, “Larks on a String,” and left several large gaps in his filmography.
He brings a gentle humanism to “I Served the King of England”; unfortunately, it doesn't suit the film at all. There's not a trace of anger or bitterness in this story of a naif who blithely profits from the Holocaust and then spends 15 years in jail for being rich.
Menzel's sensibility requires a delicate calibration of irony and dark humor; all too often, “I Served the King of England” settles for mere whimsy. Rather than Menzel's best work, like his classic debut “Closely Watched Trains,” this film recalls dreck like “Forrest Gump” and “Life Is Beautiful.”
Jan Dite (played as a young man by Ivan Barnev and an old one by Oldrich Kaiser) is a hotel waiter who wants to become a millionaire. He has little interest in politics. He leaves the pub where he works, getting a job at an elegant brothel and then a posh restaurant. As time goes on, the signs of an impending world war become all the more apparent. At first, Czechs resist the Germans, then they're forced to kowtow to them.
Oblivious to his surroundings, Jan meets Liza (Julia Jentsch), a proud Nazi. While he accepts fascist ideology more out of passivity than active allegiance, he marries her after proving that he's a real Aryan. Throughout the film, Menzel cuts back and forth between scenes set in the '30s and '40s and later sequences depicting an older Jan, exiled to rural Czechoslovakia and stripped of ambition.
There's something to be said for this film's sexual frankness. If only it wasn't so grounded in straight male fantasy! Women who are over 30 or not conventionally beautiful are simply invisible here. The sole exception Â- a chubby, middle-aged nurse – helpfully lends a hand as Jan masturbates.
Apart from Liza, who abandons Jan to go to the front, the film's women are ludicrously servile — all ready to doff their tops at a moment's notice or let Jan spread flowers and food over their naked bodies.
Needless to say, its treatment of prostitution is heavily romanticized. Lest one think that Menzel is simply depicting a sexist character, his camera lingers on breasts visible beneath wet, flimsy clothing and the ass of a woman sashaying down the street.
The sex scenes also testify to Menzel's fondness for crosscutting and images of transformation. He uses the latter to make a point about Jan's materialism and ambition, as he throws a handful of coins into the air and watches them become a rainbow of dollar bills.
Less successfully, “I Served the King of England” throws in newsreel footage of Nazis marching as Jan has sex with Liza and morphs Hitler's face onto hers. When he masturbates, the film cuts to images of prisoners being led off a truck. These connections are ludicrously heavy-handed. Surely, the film could bridge the gap between Eros and Thanatos less bluntly.
“I Served the King of England” spends about 40 percent of its running time in the benign world of pre-war Prague, a democracy where one could be relatively apolitical with a clear conscience. In this part of the film, Menzel often draws on the vocabulary of silent cinema, creating pastiches of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton.
Obviously, he intends to establish a mood that will later be shattered, but Menzel treats the horrors of Nazism and Communism with kid gloves. Only once does he come up with a truly disturbing image of the effects of World War II – a hotel pool filled entirely with amputees.
In the end, Jan seems to think that his 15 years in prison gave him a conscience, but the film never shows us what he does with it. It just piles on an endless amount of voice-over. Despite his inclinations for wealth and comfort, Jan winds up living an existence on the edge; the film dishonors the history it glides through by lacking any sense of real danger.