There are two things that I especially cannot stand in movies: one of them consists of having men and women establish their sexual friskiness by leaping fully-clothed into a fountain; the other involves smashing every kitchen plate within reach to express bottled-up inner rage. I Served the King of England, Czech filmmaker Jiří Menzel’s return to the cinema after fifteen years of directing theatre, drags both of my pet peeves to the forefront, and then some.
The setting is Europe in the early 1930s; we all know where the time and place are headed, and so we wait and wait, through the supposedly merry frolics of an impish, mischievous, revoltingly amoral clown named Jan Dítě (Ivan Barnev, whose nimble physicality evokes Nureyev, but whose neutered persona and silent movie techniques are straight out of Chaplin). We wait for the Nazis to arrive and put an end to such quirky summer idylls as call girls and their rich, elderly johns pelting one another with cream puffs, squealing with joy, as a rigid, immobile attendant holds aloft a silver tray piled high with an endless supply of pastries for the combatants to grab. Menzel scores this outdoor romp to a jaunty, syncopated piano, much as the fountain leap, with the suits chasing the diaphanous frocks after one of the latter dabs a tablespoon of whipped cream on the nose of one of the former, played out to the strains of tuba and banjo on the soundtrack. The instrumentation reinforces that we are having such a wonderful time—or are we?
Even without our foreknowledge of the Nazis’ rise to power, the Holocaust, the Second World War, there’s something curdled from the get-go about Menzel’s adaptation of Bohumil Hrabal’s 1974 novel. Like the atrocious The Lives of Others, I Served the King of England sentimentalizes evil; furthermore, Menzel’s movie so neutrally presents the central character’s complicity in evil—that is to say, the movie cultivates a tone of wide-eyed, nostalgic innocence for the most questionable acts—that I, without virtue of having read Hrabal’s book, cannot quite tell what Menzel’s aiming for. In one sequence (the movie’s saddest and most outrageous), the director crosscuts between Jan’s failed attempts to masturbate into a hospital specimen tube (while listening to the Führer give a speech on the radio) and the scene that’s unfurling outside the clinic. A cluster of rifle-toting German soldiers in occupied Prague stand opposite a young man in his late teens or early twenties, dressed up in suit and tie. Adjacent to them, there’s a small tent out from which peaks a fresh, wholesome face; a young man peers through the flap, then pops out, and then another and another, so many that one wonders how a tent of such modest size could have held them all, these cleanly scrubbed flowers of Czech youth in their Sunday best. Menzel has some taste—he doesn’t show the actual gunning down of these local boys by the Nazi mob, nor are there sound effects of the killings. He makes the point with refreshing obliqueness. Yet what must the director have had in mind by juxtaposing this horror with his clown-hero’s inability to jack off? Could this be Menzel’s rebuttal to Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful? The Czech auteur appears to tell us that, in wartime, we cannot have it both ways; one can be a victim or one can be a pawn, but that resourcefulness of any kind is out.
Then again, given the emphasis on procreation, on the engineering of an Aryan super-race, in the movie’s second half (Jan marries a devout Nazi girl who can’t get it on unless her bed faces a framed portrait of Hitler—it’s the Führer she’s responding to as her fair-haired husband mechanically screws), I realize it’s the impotence of the German fixation on “pure blood” that Menzel’s underlining, that the rigged-up rigors of their breeding experiments may not produce anyone like the Prague youths who were so casually squandered.
For most of the film’s 120-minute length, however, there’s the long “carefree,” slapstick build-up toward the inevitable, and all that, despite the handsome production values and rapturously good editing by Jiří Brožek, proves truly insufferable.
The movie begins with a whirling, waltz-like orchestral score, flourishy, bouncy, cuckoo clock music filled with bassoons and whistles and an escalating rhythmic attack reminiscent, in its circularity, of marching around and around the aisles of a toy factory, à la the boom and pomp trash classics of Leopold Mozart. Menzel divides the film between an older version of Jan (Oldřich Kaiser), just getting out of prison, ruefully setting up housekeeping within a dilapidated farmhouse in a fog-shrouded wood (“I rejoiced to see such devastation,” his voice-over admits) and Jan the younger (Barnev). The two physically match so well that I was never aware of watching different actors: the conceptions are seamless, so that their work appears to be a single performance, abetted by extraordinarily savvy make-up artists and wigmakers. Menzel, however, lets us in on the post-war Jan’s point-of-view, while revealing nothing of young Jan’s thoughts or even if Barnev’s dopey schnook with the carrot-blond shock of wavy hair and perennially twinkling smile of self-possession is, in fact, capable of thought. We’re meant to love him, in the midst of deeply unfunny gags, the way we might be in sympathy to Chaplin or Buster Keaton. The sepia-tinted silent comedy homage that introduces Barnev’s Jan selling hot dogs by the side of railroad tracks, then chasing the locomotive (unsuccessfully, of course) to give a customer his change, tries to tap directly into those automated wellsprings, but what a cynical joker we’re asked to consider endearing. In an ongoing, ugly commentary, Jan, whether on the street or in any of the beer halls/cafés/hotels where he works as a waiter, repeatedly tosses out coins—he throws them when no one is looking, then watches to see who scurries to nab the loose change and how fast they scavenge for it. Invariably, Jan’s pleased that rich men will grovel for these small amounts, but again, why? What’s the point, and why must it be flung at us over and over? Surely it isn’t to substantiate the clown’s moral superiority? Only a bastard would keep trotting out this same old coin trick.
In his white waiter’s uniform, making the rounds from table to table in balletic pantomime, Jan, whose eyes resemble a pair of gray marbles, doesn’t seem to be entirely there. His saucy impudence feels well rehearsed and when he gazes in a mirror at work, practicing his deranged non-expression, his cartoonish employer slaps him on the back of his head. The extremes of physical humor don’t make sense within the movie’s context. When Jan’s favorite prostitute visits the bar, she avenges Jan against his boss (or so she imagines) by idiotically pouring glass after glass of raspberry grenadine over herself, then letting the empty pints drop and shatter. It’s supposed to be a statement on control, I guess, of the sort that would register in the hearts of service industry professionals, yet walking out and down the street, all sticky and sweet, she’s in danger of being stung to death by swarming bees.
Unlike Keaton or Chaplin, Barnev’s clown gets to be a sexual conquistador, and while the movie’s blend of whimsy and erotica greatly appealed to a woman friend of mine, it struck me as insipid. I might have felt otherwise, if Jan weren’t so quick to beam at his own cleverness in bed and if the hookers and chambermaids he entertains weren’t so ostentatiously congratulating him in their delight. The ideas are good ones—he decorates their nude forms with white flower petals, with dollar bills and, yes, coins, and with (if I recall correctly) some yummy, dessert-like substance (but not before he’s stepped in chocolate-covered strawberry goop in his haste to make love on the dining room table). (Seen leaping into bed in one shot, the diminutive Barnev has, in spite of his impossible face, an impressively toned, athletic physique.)
In one of Brožek’s most skillful edits, Jan’s face radiates pleasure as a prostitute goes down on him; the scene imperceptibly begins in one bed and elides into another, the cold bed of the elder Jan who lies awake dreaming of this memory, the glow of candles providing the only source of warmth. In another sublime moment, Jan, having risen to the staff of an elaborate, Art Nouveau restaurant in Prague, listens as the maître d’ (a fine, no-nonsense turn by Martin Huba) recalls that he once served the King of England. Jan swoons, and we anticipate him hitting the floor, yet as his body begins to tilt, the camera breaks into it with a smooth, gliding motion that tracks another waiter carrying a large tray. The expected pratfall (thank God) never occurs.
Menzel unfortunately compensates for this a scene or two later with one of the most protracted and contrived stagings. A waiter accidentally drops a dish in front of the patrons; he stares at the broken china and spoiled dinner for a small eternity, then goes berserk, deliberating smashing plates to smithereens, yanking cloths off the tables he proceeds to overturn, etc. Jan, naturally, replaces him. The movie, with its episodic procession of bigger and better jobs for the protagonist, becomes a kind of study (like Pierre Salvadori’s swifter and vastly more charming Priceless) in inadvertent social climbing. The opaque dandy here never sets out to advance—it simply happens through no fault of his own, just as his unlikely romance with a Nazi girl operates outside the sphere of even connect-the-dots rationality. In Menzel’s best-known work Closely Watched Trains (which I don’t care for either), the small town hick dullard at its center achieved self-actualization through losing his virginity, only to be shot dead by a sniper minutes into his voluptuous morning after. The killing was a kind of blessing: it violated the movie’s ironic cutesy-ness. There’s nothing quite like that in I Served the King of England, wherein ironies continue uninterruptedly. In the most heinous of these, Menzel returns to the image of Jan running after a moving train that’s just pulled out of the station—it’s a metaphor for the development of his consciousness, don’t you see—and that same hot dog customer from years ago is once again riding the train that Jan cannot quite catch up to. Except that this time, the businessman Jan short-changed isn’t an ordinary traveler. He’s in a cattle car en route to a concentration camp. We can’t possibly miss the neat symmetry of it, a symmetry that’s infinitely too neat.
N.P. Thompson lives and writes in the Pacific Northwest.