Friday, April 9, 2010

Waiter, Pass the Czech

Hundreds, if not thousands, of films have attempted to address the various horrors of the twentieth century, from fascism and the Holocaust to communism and Stalinism. These movies tend to alternate between the ponderous and the campy, so it's a pleasure to find a production that deals seriously with these matters while remaining charming and even funny. The 2006 Czech film, I Served the King of England, came to American theaters for a few weeks in late 2008. If only it had received more attention here.

I Served the King of England opens with its "hero," the diminutive convict Jan Dite (Oldrich Kaiser), leaving a dreary Prague prison, where he has served fifteen years for an as-yet-undisclosed crime. The communist authorities relocate Dite to the border, where he works at renovating an abandoned and collapsing bar. As Dite works in the bar, he ponders his life and his long history as a waiter – most of the film consists of flashbacks to the life of a younger and more amoral Jan Dite (Ivan Barnev).

The first flashback begins as a faux silent film – young Dite, in black and white, selling frankfurters at a train station and speaking in title cards. Soon, however, the story of Dite's adventures in pre-WWII Czechoslovakia turns to color and sound. Dite gets a job at a bar, meets a fabulously rich industrialist, and manages to charm seemingly dozens of girls into bed. The young man seems to lead a charmed life, even if he can be just a tad unscrupulous, as when he trips up a waiter he despises and then takes his victim's job. Dite seems the classic picaresque rogue, at least until history intervenes.

In most stories of WWII, the hero is a brave foe of the Nazis – a soldier, a guerilla, a simple underground informant. Dite, however, manages to fall in love with a German schoolteacher (the only woman he has ever met shorter than he is), and ends up a collaborator – the sole waiter at a "scientific facility" (an elevated brothel) where the Germans hope to breed a new master race. In practice, this means Dite loiters with drink trays while a bevy of "Aryan" women frolic naked. Around this time, we start to notice just how Hitler-esque Dite's new mustache has grown. It seems our picaro has sold his soul.

After the war, Dite makes all the money he ever dreamed of – albeit in a shockingly nasty way – and founds his own hotel before karma, in the form of the communist authorities, catches up with him. The film returns to the "present" with Dite a poorer, but wiser and better, man. He's survived it all despite himself.

I Served the King of England is one of the funniest films I've seen of late. While most of the humor is sex-related or raunchy, the movie rarely veers into the vulgar. Much of the film parodies the rich and decadent of prewar Czech society, yet the satire is so gentle that we smile instead of clenching fists. There are moments, especially late in the film, of tragedy and horror, but young Dite's joie de vivre so dominates the film that we almost forget about them.

The silent sequence near the opening is hardly the only "unique" touch in, director, Jirí Menzel's film. While the film is rarely outright surreal, everything, from character tics to settings, is exaggerated just enough to seem unreal. The waiters are all perfectly strait-laced, the royalty unbelievably regal, the nudes quintessentially frolicsome, and the soldiers all complete automatons. The result is a highly mannered film, but one that, oddly enough, feels lighter than the sum of its affectations. The small exaggerations and distortions prepare the audience for the larger, more eyebrow-raising ones.

As much as I liked I Served the King of England, there are two technical problems I feel I must address. The first is the frequent use of crummy CGI. Now, I don't expect Weta-level effects from an Eastern European production, but the computer-generated scenes are often shoddy enough to distract the viewer and break the suspension of disbelief. Especially frustrating is the fact that several CG shots could have been done the old-fashioned way, without electronics. My second gripe concerns the subtitles, which no one seems to have proofread. Words are misused and misspelled and too often the syntax tends towards the inscrutable.

I Served the King of England is hardly a masterpiece, and it loses something in translation. Yet it has something to say about history and humanity, and it never loses its message in its persistent levity. I'm glad I saw the film; it's well-made, refreshing, funny, and surprising. What it may not be is enduring.

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