Jiri Menzel (Dir.), “I Served the King of England” (DVD Review)

I SERVED THE KING OF ENGLAND, DIRECTED BY JILI MENZEL, 2006. 120 MIN., 1.85 : 1 ASPECT RATIO.

This past February marked the U.S release of Czech director Jiri Menzel’s latest film, I Served the King of England. Although released in the Czech Republic two years ago, 2009 is the perfect year for an American release, as it marks both the anniversary of the Czech liberation from communist rule and the 70th anniversary of the Nazi occupation. The film itself is played in true Czech style, looking back on the interwar period with a mixture of irony, nostalgia, and willful ignorance.

The film’s protagonist, Jan Ditě, is a spritely young man with an unyielding obsession with wealth and privilege. I Served the King of England chronicles his rise from train-station sausage vendor to head waiter at Prague’s fanciest hotel and back down again through a series of flashbacks presented by an older Ditě, recently released from prison. As Jan rises in the world, political changes swirl around him, from the rise of the Nazi party to the Communist takeover, which lands him in jail for collaboration with the Nazis. Ditě’s German collaboration never extends beyond his role as a servant, assisting rather than explicitly aiding Nazi activity. As a result, the film focuses more on Jan’s romantic and professional experiences as he moves from job to job, accumulating wealth and seducing beautiful women along the way.

Jan’s oblivion to the social changes going on around him echoes back to Menzel’s most famous film, 1966’s Closely Watched Trains, also based on a novel by Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal. The protagonists in both of these films focus on the twists and turns of their daily lives while political turmoil occurs all around them. This commonality suggests that both Hrabal and Menzel share a view of how the Czechs as a whole see the world. TheCzech sensibility is portrayed one of purposeful ignorance. The world in the eyes of the main characters is simply the way it is; The Czechs just are, and no one has a problem with that. The lifestyles of the main characters in these works, however, are almost over-the-top in their passivity, turning these behaviors into an ironic commentary on the Czech attitude.

The Czech mentality portrayed in I Served the King of England is different from the American perspective often portrayed in mainstream cinema, which raises the question as to how receptive Americans were to a film whose characters with their attitudes and behaviors are so different from those of the audience. Many of the major American news outlets had mixed opinions about the film, appreciating Menzel’s work while still remaining skeptical about Ditě’s actions within the diegesis. Stephen Holden of The New York Times refers to Ditě’s character as “a Chaplinesque symbol of a nation made cynical(Stephen Holden, “Hot Dogs to Haute Cuisine, Then Back Down Again,” The New York Times, August 29, 2008.) and “the central European Everyman as an archetypical naïf.”(Holden, “Hot Dogs…”) The Boston Globe’s Ty Burr is more critical, wondering out loud if Ditě just “muddle[s] through, making good choices, bad choices, and really bad choices?”(Ty Burr, “Surviving WWII? He Doesn’t Have a Clue,” The Boston Globe, September 5, 2008.) Washington Post reviewer Ann Hornaday, the most skeptical, voiced major issues with the film as a whole. “When the end finally arrives,” she writes, “the note it sounds of healing and forgiveness is unquestionably welcome, but viewers could be forgiven for wondering if it’s entirely earned.”(Ann Hornaday “’I Served the King of England’: What Didn’t He Do In The War?” The Washington Post, September 12, 2008.)

All of these reviewers tap into the voluntary oblivion of the characters in King of England, but collectively they seemed to have missed the point. Ditě’s refusal to acknowledge the changing world around him is seen by Americans as the action of a man made embittered by shifting expectations in a world no longer stable, echoing the ideals of the 18th century revolutionaries who founded the United States. They fail to see that Ditě’s actions come not out of anger or frustration, but of a conscious motivation to live his life the way he wants, regardless of the world around him. Hornaday does not understand how Ditě can find closure when he was “strangely passive, even inert”(Hornaday, “’I Served the King…’”) throughout the film. Holden seems more accepting, but he still can only conceive of Ditě as a form of the Good Soldier Svejk. The Czech sensibility is one of casual acceptance, an attitude that has been mistaken by American audiences (or at least their critics) as bittersweet, frustrated, and ironic.

As American audiences struggle to understand Menzel’s portrayal of the Czech sensibility, one has to wonder how this anniversary year is seen, if at all, in the United States. Having no historical familiarity, it is not surprising that U.S. audiences have trouble relating to films like King of England that depict the Communist takeover of Czechoslovakia. With the rise in film accessibility thanks to DVD, American audiences now have a chance to be more exposed to films that present unfamiliar ways of viewing the world, such as I Served the King of England. Perhaps over time, this exposure will help American society become more familiar with Czech history and learn that even oblivion can sometimes be a cause to celebrate.

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