I Served the King of England
Written and directed by Jiri Menzel, from the novel by Buhumil Hrabal

Starring Ivan Barnev, Oldrich Kaiser


I Served the King of England

In 1966 the Czech filmmaker Jiri Menzel made a film called "Closely Watched Trains" that won the Academy Award that year for best foreign film. Menzel has made many films since then, though most of them never made it to America. But his newest one, called "I Served the King of England," made a year or two ago, has the same sly wit and yet constantly skirts the edge of tragedy; it's absolutely fascinating, and I think one of the best films of the year.

It begins when we meet a sixtyish man named Jan Dite, just getting out of prison, perhaps sometime around 1970, when the Communists ruled Czechoslovakia. He tells us that he was sentenced to 15 years but because of an amnesty he only served 14 years and nine months. He's been given an old cabin in what was Sudeten Czechoslovakia, now empty because the Sudeten Germans have moved away. And he tells us his life story, which the film then shows us. He was a hot-dog vender as a young man, yet always wanting to be a millionaire. He found that people will always pick up coins that have dropped, whether they're rich or poor, and he finds a mentor who gets him a job as a waiter at a Prague restaurant.

The young Jan Dite is played by Ivan Barnev, who actually is Bulgarian and I'm not sure that he even speaks Czech, because as we watch the young Jan he never speaks; he's short and blonde, and physically he reminds us of Charlie Chaplin because he moves with the grace and poise that Chaplin had. It's not the young man but the old Jan Dite who tells us all this in voiceover as we watch the young Jan at work.

First he's a waiter in a bordello, then he moves to a restaurant in a hotel, and finally to the grand Hotel Paris in Prague. Along the way he finds a headwaiter who always knows in advance what his patrons will order. How did he know? "I Served the King of England," the man tells him.

Though surrounded by beautiful women, Jan finds the one for him: she turns out to be a Nazi named Liza, who can make love only by looking at a portrait of Hitler. During World War II she leaves for the front, but comes back with valuable stamps that she's taken from Jewish households in Poland. Now Jan is a millionaire.

The way in which Menzel makes his film a tragedy while we laugh at his comedy, much as he did in "Closely Watched Trains," is I think unique among filmmakers. "I Served the King of England" has won awards at festivals across the globe and deserves to be on anyone's list as one of the best films of the year.