I served the King of England – Jiri Menzel’s take on Bohumil Hrabal just after the Prague Spring.
I got the distinct feeling all the way through I served the King of England, that i was missing the “in” joke. It’s entirely likely of course – I’m not Czech, and I’ve never read the book. There is something deeply beautiful about Jan Dítĕ (Ivan Barnev) despite his rather appalling opportunism. Jiri Menzel made this film in 2006 and it is his sixth adaptation of one of Bohumil Hrabal’s novels. Its a very Czech film, in that it is light, crisp and cheeky.
Jiri Menzel made Closely Watched Trains (another adaptation of Hrabal’s) near the beginning of his career, and in many ways this film is similar. The protagonist of Closely Watched Trains is a man who accidentally becomes a war hero, though the Czech people spend the bulk of the war in the film (part of the 1960’s Czech new wave) opportunistically living their lives in whatever happiness they can find despite the overhanging cloud of the war. As Jan Dítĕ says in I served the King of England, “We Czech’s are not fighters”. Jan Dítĕ is a partly ignorant, partly opportunistic completely loveable character who – just as Milos is accidentally made a hero in Closely Watchyed Trains – is accidentally made a villain in I served the King of England. In both stories the morality of the protagonist depends on the turn of a friendly card. It is not the motivations of the protagonist that make the morality / immorality of their character but the accidental surrounds they find themselves in. Milos’ of CWT sole ambition is to get out of work as his father and his fathers father did before him. Jan’s sole desire is to be extremely wealthy, seemingly no matter what that takes.
This film is filled with the trade mark loveliness of a Czech new wave film, and a Brabal novel. Jan is a cheerful sweet natured man who probably has the funniest small man syndrome in the history of film and literature. He is a complete opportunist but at the same time a very savvy survivor who can sum up in an instant the weight of an important experience against the value of his job. He starts out as a lowly pub waiter and slowly works his way up, job by job to work in the most prestigious hotels in Prague. Jan eventually finds employment in Prague at the Hotel Paříž, where he falls under the tutelage of the Maître d’, Skřivánek, who claims that he once served the King of England. Eventually, Jan serves the Emperor of Ethiopia at one occasion. The Emperor tries to award a medal to Skřivánek, but because he is short in height, cannot place the award around Skřivánek’s neck. Jan is short enough for the Emperor to reach, and manoeuvres into place to receive the medal in place of Skřivánek, who can’t object in front of the Emperor of Ethiopia. It is after moments such as these, Jan knows he needs to flee.
Jiri Menzel takes full advantage of having a healthy budget here and probably the richest enjoyment I got out of the film was seeing something with the spirit of the Czech New Wave with the money of a wealthy film. It is sumptuous and beautiful, with some lovely shots of Jan who bedecks his lovers with flowers, or fruits or whatever he can find as a creative gift after he makes love to them (which in the film version always involves him giving them oral pleasure – nothing more). Despite his womanising and small stature, no female can resist him because of the romance of his gestures and the skill of his cunnilingus. But the women are not the only aspect of Jan that is tantalising His love and fascination with money has developed into a cute little practise of tossing coins at the feet of the patrons of his hotels, taking pleasure in watching them grovelling on the floor for the currency. As Jan deals with more and more wealthy folk, the experiment becomes more and more fascinating as the hunger for wealth is displayed in this funny little act. It is creative moments like these that imbue Jan with an intelligence beyond his fellow man.
What seems different here from Closely Watched Trains, is a kind of cynicism The refusal to “engage” properly with the war in CWT comes across as an act of survival and affirmation of sorts. We admire the Czech people for their passivity – something that is deeply criticised in other Czech New Wave films such as The Party and the Guests. I served the King of England has a barely perceptible darkness to it. Our sweet innocent protagonist who comes across as a kind of pacifist will end up using his charm and warmth to save a German girl he sees attacked on the streets of Prague. He rushes to her rescue, only to find himself swept up into a relationship with Nazism that he cannot properly comprehend. This will eventually see him jailed for his allegiances and ill acquired wealth, rather than celebrated for his humanity.
As I said at the start of this post, I get the feeling there is an in joke I may be missing here. Menzel and Hrabal are criticising the Czech for what they celebrated in Closely Watched Trains. Its no accident that Jiri Menzel makes this film with a high budget. Wealth is a primary force and motivator within the book. Menzel might have made the film in 2006, but Hrabal wrote the book in 1971, after the war and during the Communist occupation. The Prague Spring that spurred the new wave films was over. Closely watched Trains was written just before the Prague Spring in 1965. The Prague Spring was in 1968 and then by 1971 Hrabal had to publish I served the King of England in a secret anti-communist press. The trait that seemed to hold the seed of hope in 1965, held the secret to the defeat and domination in 1971. Hrabal could no longer forgive the Czech people for their sweet, passive beauty as it resulted in a (re) marriage with evil.
Perhaps. Like I said – it may be something else and I am missing the point.