As I watched this Czech film (with English subtitles) about a waiter who recalls his own ambitious ascent in Prague during the rise of Adolph Hitler and the German occupation, I couldn't help but think of another picaresque film with a "recollection" frame: "Little Big Man" (1970).
Partly it's the structure of this film, which takes us through the same (mis)adventures with the same wry humor as we saw in the hapless but crafty survivalist Jack Crabb (Dustin Hoffman), who negotiated the Wild West for his own benefit. And partly it's the diminutive thing. Jan Díte (played by Ivan Barnev as a young man, and Oldrich Kaeser when he's older) is so small that he's constantly getting picked on. But he's assertive when he needs to be in order to get noticed by the right people, and often, as happened with the West's "Little Big Man," those people include beautiful and willing young women. There's no romp with two sisters under a buffalo skin here, but a waiter who knows food and drink is in no short supply of kinky turn-ons . . . like arranging fruits and vegetables on the body of his naked conquest, or making love on the turntable upon which she had earlier revolved, one bare breast exposed, for the pleasure of gawking older gentlemen who dined in private. It's not exactly that Díte was a procurer, but he had a knack for giving the most important patrons what they wanted--first by helping one in a chess match in order to help him get promoted to front waiter, and then as someone who instinctively knew what the gentlemen wanted, without there having to be any embarrassing words spoken about it.
"I Served the King of England" is the kind of bawdy historical romp that "Little Big Man" might have been had it not been made 35 years before it. And as with any episodic film, its success depends upon our willingness to spend time with the main character. That's not a problem, because Barnev is a comic delight as the younger Díte, and Kaiser maintains the familiar desire for women while exuding the tempered poise of a survivalist for whom life has finally taken a toll. Whereas "Little Big Man" stuck with a strict frame and reserved old Crabb for the beginning and opening sequences, "I Served the King of England" integrates more of the current-day narrative with the flashbacks. That's risky, because viewers tend to favor one narrative and become disappointed and impatient when the storyline keeps shifting, but director Jiri Menzel ("Closely Watched Trains," "My Sweet Little Village") gives us two equally strong storylines with similarities that tie them together and enough contrasts to make them fascinating as a two-piece puzzle involving, of all things, postage stamps.
Little Big Waiter dodges the Nazis but can't decipher the Communists in time to keep from getting thrown into prison, and it's the re-emergence of an older and wiser former waiter that provides a nice counterpoint to the sometimes frivolous comedy and reminds us of the serious times during which this is set. As the older Díte tries to start a new life at an abandoned hotel in a deserted village (the Czechs who lived there were relocated, and then the Germans who sent them packing were relocated by the Communists), and as his eyes wander with familiar lust toward a young woman who was also "sentenced" to this desolate place, and as we watch the sexual tension build between them it's a wonderful counterweight to the bawdy goings on from his lusty youth-especially the hotel he eventually acquires which, turned into a resort by the Nazis, becomes a brothel-spa for soldiers on leave. Yes, there is nudity here, and a lot of it. But there is eroticism too, and humor, as when young Díte hooks up with a pro-Nazi young German woman.
I don't want to spoil anything by saying too much, since the real delight of this film comes in watching every twist and squirm, with new erotic R-rated adventures around every bend. But I will say that the performances are delightfully understated, despite the over-the-top scenes, and that Barnev rises to the occasion when cued by the music to launch into Keatonesque escapades, complete with sad-sack, deadpan facial expressions. And I'll add, again, that Kaiser balances the mirth-filled early scenes with poignant ones that still retain the vestiges of that sad and wise clown.
Jaromír Sofr's cinematography is by turns intimate and epic, a perfect complement to a film that tries to tell a personal story against a backdrop of war, and a sensual adventure with intellectual underpinnings. That's not an easy feat, but an intelligent script by Menzel, based on the novel by Bohumil Hrabal, makes it possible.
I prefer, always, to watch a non-English film in its original language, but with "I Served the King of England" I almost wish there were a dubbed version. That's because the frames are so lavish and rich and packed full of things going on--subtle things that have an impact on the tone and the intellectual and emotional subtexts--that it's hard to read the long lines of dialogue at times and still savor the full visual experience.
"I Served the King of England" is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, and while there's a slight graininess throughout it's very slight, and a bold and brilliant color palette more than compensates.
The film is presented in Czech Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround, with English or French subtitles. The audio isn't as rich as the video, however, and there were a number of scenes where I felt that there should have been more rear-speaker involvement. There's also a very slight hiss in spots. But overall, it's a solid soundtrack.
The only bonus feature is the original trailer.
This heady comedy is a fun and absorbing satire of everything from politics and personal survival to sexual mores . . . and more.