It’d be difficult to argue that the time for black comedies about the Nazi era, or the bildungsroman of the fascist-friendly youth, has passed. A generation ago, adaptations of literary works from The Tin Drum and The Conformist to Cabaret formed a dominant strain of historical-political cinema, particularly in Europe. In filming the late Czech novelist Bohumil Hrabal’s I Served the King of England, Jirí Menzel (put on the international map by his 1966 prize-winning version of Hrabal’s Closely Watched Trains) serves an audience with nearly no memory of World War II. Is that why its often cutely choreographed irony feels not only familiar and secondhand but trivializing?
Cutting back and forth from comically ambitious young waiter Díte (Ivan Barnev) in ‘30s Prague to his weary, contemplative older self (Oldrich Kaiser) newly freed from prison by the postwar Communists, Menzel, a soldier with Milos Forman in the ‘60s Czech New Wave film movement against the repression of the state, casts a leisurely eye on an apolitical go-getter trapped by history. His floaty, dollying camera and the milieu of Old World playgrounds for the rich—luxury hotels, restaurants, brothels—are meant to be lulling, but the subsequent nightmare isn’t followed through with requisite impact and detail. Paul Verhoeven’s recent thriller Black Book managed tit-baring, lascivious entertainment without stinting on the brutality of the epoch; Menzel can’t sustain the horrific absurdity this picaresque aims for.
Rising via industry, chicanery and happenstance from train station hot-dog salesman to headwaiter at a top Prague eatery, Díte (played with a sort of Keatonesque deadpan and darting physicality by the pasty blond Barney) attentively dotes on the millionaires he envies, leaps on their tarts-for-hire once parties are concluded, and is tutored in the scientific observation of customers by an imposing maitre d’ (Martin Huba) whose rationale for his expertise is “I served the king of England.” (Díte, in one comic set piece, settles for an accidental honor from Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie.) After building a career on waltzing between tables with overloaded trays, the social-climbing Díte courts a devoted young “Aryan” teacher (Julia Jentsch) shortly after Hitler grabs her native Sudetenland, and his journey becomes a eugenics circus. He’s deemed sufficiently pure to breed with his new bride by the Reich’s authorities, then joins the staff of a breeding center where soldiers fill fluted glasses with sperm as fertile young Deutscher Mädels romp naked in the pool.
A pliant worm whose only commitment is to become a major hotelier, Díte’s limited awakening is neither tragedy nor the kind of bitter, fatalistic farce seen in Lina Wertmuller’s Seven Beauties. “Who knows where they are now?” his Nazi spouse sniffs of the deported Jews whose rare stamps she’s stolen to fund Díte’s dream. A weak and dopey bystander, though representative of millions in that mid-century cataclysm, isn’t a compelling enough fulcrum to bear the satiric weight of Hrabal’s timeline.