We in the 20th century are inclined to see the glory in ourselves and the shame in others.
—Professor (Milan Lasica)
“My whole life, I aspired solely to become a millionaire,” remembers Jan Díte (Oldøich Kaiser). “But before that, I wanted nothing more than to peddle frankfurters at the train station.” His declaration—both earnest and nonsensical—establishes at once the dissonance of I Served the King of England (Obsluhoval jsem anglického krále). Díte’s story is patently absurd, never quite connected to the Czech history it reflects, but metaphorically devastating. As he ponders himself in a collection of mirrors he’s assembled in a dilapidated cottage, he feels alternately “alarmed” and “sickened,” struggling to come to terms with what he’s wanted and what he now sees.
I Served the King of England (Obsluhoval jsem anglického krále)
Ivan Barnev, Oldøich Kaiser, Martin Huba, Julia Jentsch, Marián Labuda, Milan Lasica, Zuzana Fialová
(Sony Pictures Classics)
US theatrical: 29 Aug 2008 (Limited release)
UK theatrical: 9 May 2008 (Limited release)
I Served the King of England is Jirí Menzel’s sixth adaptation of work by novelist Bohumil Hrabal (his first was 1966’s Closely Watched Trains). Using the absurd Díte to indict decades of Czech ambition, passivity, and willful ignorance, the film is a familiar sort of comedy, equal parts farcical and musical, its very sameness making it seem inconsequential. Damning capitalism, fascism, and communism, it argues that all are driven by greed and small thinking. Díte claims to understand what motivates people. “For a few coins,” he says “they’ll bend over kneel down and even crawl on all fours.” Imagining himself a “sower of seed,” his coins coming back to him as deserved wealth, he assumes a larger order, a sort of luck that will reward his effort. As many times as he tosses coins, well-heeled citizens scramble to retrieve them., even as he gazes into the sky and pictures animated bills cascading back to him.
Díte first appears as an elderly figure with face faux-wizened, released from prison after nearly 15 years (his sentence was cut by three months owing to “the amnesty”). As he looks back on his youth, Díte—whose name translates to “Little Man”—recalls his mostly bumbling efforts to make money and learn lessons that will lead to making more money. The film cuts between Díte now, sent off to post-prison punishment in the woods as “a roadman,” and flashbacks to his younger self (played by Ivan Barnev). As a young man, he’s working in a pub, where he is regularly smacked upside his head and demeaned as a “shrimp.” Inspired by Walden (Marián Labuda), a patron so wealthy he papers his hotel room floors with bills (“Money can lay the world at your feet,” he advises), Díte aspires to similar “success”—he means to “go places.”
These places will be marked as increasingly upscale eating establishments, and Díte’s role models are men with grand appetites. Again and again, he observes clients consuming—downing wine, oysters, fancy cakes, and rich sauces on their meats—while he and his fellow waiters dance among tables, their trays balanced just so, their steps delicate and sure.
Díte’s vision of success readjusts, sort of, when he meets a pretty blond prostitute, Jaruska (Petra Hrebícková). She embodies the connections between sensual pleasure and money, a slightly less abstract notion than the relationship between class status and pleasure. As diligently as Díte pursues the latter, his initiation into paid-for sex is something of a revelation. The film references his delight repeatedly, with lovely young women arranged in tableaux, their nude bodies adorned with flowers, foodstuffs, and colorful bills, as Díte frames and reframes them, showing them how they appear in mirrors even as he gazes on their reflections with a kind of delirious rapture.
The mirrors provide a smart metaphor throughout I Served the King of England, each recurrence another instance of how individual perspectives accommodate changing self-images and projections, cultural conditions and political expediencies. When Díte determines to learn the service business and trains with the brilliant maitre d’ Skrivánek (Martin Huba), he works hard to please and perform. When, however, he’s blinded by seemingly instantaneous devotion to a new girlfriend, the blond-braided teacher Líza (Julia Jentsch), Díte sees himself again in her eyes. Since her home in Sudetenland has been overrun by Nazis, she has adapted, absorbing the notion that races must be kept pure and imagining her own as Aryan. Deciding that pale-complexioned Díte’s background offers evidence of Aryan blood, she marries him. (Their sexual encounters are variously absurd, not least being an interlude where she keeps the Führer’s portrait in view as her husband humps her, clumsily.)
Looking back on these adventures, the elder Díte remains idealistic but still limited. For a brief time, he’s joined in the woods by the rustic beauty Marcela (Zuzana Fialová) and the Professor (Milan Lasica): as he halfheartedly lusts after her, Díte is also half-listening to him. “Man is indestructible, mentally and physically,” says the Professor, but misled by philosophers and prophets. “They’re nothing more than a pack of scoundrels, villains, bastards, and murderers,” he rages. “Mankind would be better off without them.”
As Díte considers this view, he’s yet drawn to his own memories, the women he serviced and the wealth he finally attained. The former are a function of his invisibility: while Líza marches off with occupying forces, he remains behind at a Lebensborn breeding resort, holding trays full of protein drinks for naked blond beauties who are gathered to receive the sperm of square-jawed soldiers and birth Aryan babies. When at last he and Líza are reunited, she’s brought with her stamps worth millions and once owned by Jews, now “deported.” Díte wonders for a moment, then assumes he deserves the profits, having worked so assiduously during his lifetime.
Such inversions of logic, morality, and responsibility shape the worldviews of most everyone Díte meets during his bizarre romp of a lifetime. Attached to no one and floating through history, he’s not so much an everyman as hapless one, buffeted by forces he can’t begin to comprehend. Try as he might to make order of the chaos around him, to be a “sower of seed,” Díte remains unknowing.