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Friday, Sept. 26, 2008

I Served the King of England

Waiting for the king of England

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Sentenced to 15 years on charges of being too rich, the former waiter Jan Dite is finally released from prison in Communist Czechoslovakia. Squinting against the bright sunshine of freedom, Dite's re-entry into society suffers a momentary snag when the strap of his backpack catches in the iron gate that slams shut behind him.

Caught in the clutches of fate but wriggling his way forward, Dite's release sets the tone for I Served the Kingof England. The latest film by Czech director Jiri Menzel (who won a foreign-language Oscar in 1967 for Closely Watched Trains) is indebted to Charlie Chaplin in its satirical sensibility. The actor playing Dite as a young man in the many extensive flashbacks, Ivan Barnev, possesses the expressive rubbery face and agile comic timing of the Little Tramp as he bungles his way from poverty to wealth to prison, surviving plutocracy, Nazism and Communism with the unconscious good fortune of the cat with nine lives.

Menzel even stages one of the flashbacks as a black-and-white silent picture; much of the Chaplin influence, however, is closer to his first talking movie, Modern Times, in its wind-up scenes of a mechanized, dehumanized society. The Great Dictator also comes to mind during a World War II bedroom farce. When Dite climbs on top of his German wife (suitably mollified by his partly Aryan heritage), she firmly pushes his face aside so she can gaze longingly at the portrait of the Fuhrer, hanging on the wall opposite their marriage bed.

Based on a novel by the late Czech author Bohumil Hrabal (who wrote the screenplay for Closely Watched Trains), I Served the King of England keeps close to its literary source through the persistent voice-overs of the post-prison Dite, an older and wiser man. He was a canny fool in his youth, at once nave and cunning, stumbling toward his goal of becoming a millionaire hotelier through luck and guile.

With its sharply absurd sensibility cutting everything it glances upon, I Served the King of Englandfollows its protagonist from the silken prewar bordello of Czechoslovakia's rich to the polished gilt surfaces of Prague's grandest hotel and back again to the bordello, which the Nazi occupiers converted into an SS "breeding center" for the new race they hoped to create from Aryan stock. Cashing in the rare postage stamps his German wife seized from Jewish deportees, he buys the bordello after the war and transforms it into the luxury hotel of his dream.

He is awakened soon enough from his reverie when the Communists take over his country. His property is confiscated in the people's name and he is sent to prison, sharing a cellblock with the millionaires he waited on in happier times.

Many Czech films, novels and plays from the generation that came of age during World War II are steeped in similar absurdity, perhaps the result of being overrun by both Nazism and Communism in short order. Not unlike the best work of those artists, I Served the King of England is softened by the hope of redemption when the older Dite realizes that he has become more human only after being deprived of all he had desired.