Depending on your tastes, a giggling woman wearing nothing except for strategically placed food items may not be the most erotic of images. But, in Jiri Menzel’s “I Served the King of England,” such an image is emblematic of an indulgent time in the Czech Republic’s history — before the Germans came marching in and the nation fell to communism. Though Menzel’s film borders on the absurd, this farce adeptly deals with a nation’s epic history in an inventive and playful fashion.
The film begins some years after the communist takeover when Jan Dite (Ivan Barnev) is released from prison after serving a 15-year sentence. The state exiles him to a deserted town where Sudeten Germans lived prior to the war. It is in the middle of these isolated woods that Dite reflects on the events that propelled him to this point. Through a series of flashbacks we see the rise and fall of this jovial Everyman who, despite his small stature, aspires to become a millionaire in the hotel business. Dite pretty much does it all — sells hot dogs, bartends in a café, waits on rich men in an upscale brothel — until finally scoring a position in the restaurant of one of Prague’s most exclusive hotels. Just as he is about to attain maître de status, in waltzes the nutty but oh so Aryan Liza (Julia Jentsch) who has a strong affinity toward Dite — and Hitler. Though Dite is not German, his bright blond hair and blue eyes could almost qualify him for the Hitler Youth, making their desired marriage credible under the Third Reich.
Dite eventually loses his job due to the restaurant’s strong nationalistic sentiments and his entanglement with the other side. Not to worry, because after the war Dite becomes a millionaire 15 times over with a stamp collection his wife amassed while plundering the homes of Jews in concentration camps. This fortune is why Dite ends up in jail for 15 years when communists take their vengeance on the wealthy.
Though “King of England” is not an entirely successful epic history of a tumultuous period, its frothy tone provides an entertaining experience, despite the bitterness that lies underneath the surface. The first half is a sumptuous feast of eye candy — reminiscent of Sophia Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette” — that takes the viewer on a visual journey through the Czech Republic’s more decadent days. It is undeniably over-the-top and even silly at the weakest spots (Dite adorns the bodies of three different naked women with money, flowers and food), but the rich colors and stylized scenes of the flashbacks contrast sharply with the grayish blues and decrepit homes in Dite’s old age.
Barnev’s young Dite is fascinating to watch as he saunters through the film with a wide-eyed look and a naïve, single-minded obsession with money, even as he is subject to the turmoil of the world around him.
At first glimpse, “I Served the King of England” is all glitz and glamour, but beneath its glossy surface is an intelligent comedy tackling the struggles that befell one nation. Ultimately, it’s Czech History 101 that goes down smooth.