It has been 22 years since director Jiri Menzel submitted a foreign-film contender to the Academy Awards. His 1986 entry, "My Sweet Little Village," didn't win. But in 1967 his first feature, "Closely Watched Trains," did, bringing international acclaim to the 29-year-old member of the Czech New Wave.
Unlike compatriots such as Milos Forman, Menzel didn't leave Czechoslovakia after the Soviet-led invasion in 1968. He continued working there until his jabs at the communist regime led it to ban him from making movies in 1969. In 1974, Menzel disavowed his views in order to make films, but he resumed political activism after the restoration of a free Czech Republic in 1989. He has remained in his homeland, directing and acting.
Most of Menzel's pictures have had limited or no release in the United States, so the arrival of "I Served the King of England" as the Czech Republic's entry for this year's Academy Awards is something of an event.
"I Served" contains several elements of "Trains," despite the 41-year age difference: It was adapted from a book by the late, prominent Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal, with whom Menzel collaborated for decades; Jaromir Sofr is the cinematographer; most of the action takes place in the 1930s before Germany's insidious takeover; the tone is gently, wryly comic; women are idolized as alluring objects; and the story follows a shy young man who is initiated into both sexual experience and enemy occupation.
Much more time is devoted to the latter in "I Served," however, and its protagonist, Jan Dite, is a far more interesting and likable character than railroad employee Milos Hrma of "Trains."
We first meet Dite as an aging man (Oldrich Kaiser) being released "early" -- three months shy of his 15-year sentence -- from a communist prison. The wry humor continues, as Dite's duffel bag gets caught in the prison's front doors. "It was always my luck to run into bad luck," he narrates. This is puzzling, since we learn that he excelled at making his own luck, as the story alternates between old Dite, exiled to the mountains, and flashback memories of his youth.
Young Dite (Ivan Barnev) is small, small-town and childlike, but shrewd in pursuing his goal of becoming a millionaire. Much time is spent on sumptuous scenes of the elegant settings, food (it qualifies as a "food movie") and prostitutes Dite encounters working his way up in and around 1930s Prague. Menzel's old-world view of women is a bit hard to swallow, but Sofr creates dazzling, sensual images for their admirers.
Politically, Dite is oblivious, as we see when the incipient occupiers arrive. Dite is disturbingly noncommittal, capable both of loving one of their members and desperately trying to pass food to Jews in a railroad car. "I Served" nonetheless continues to amuse, simply by allowing characters to spout Nazi rhetoric.
It's disappointing that Menzel, 70 now, couldn't come up with something more profound or novel than the revelations voiced by the charismatic, underused Kaiser as old Dite in the too-brief ending, but his film is nonetheless one of the most delightful released in a long time.
I SERVED THE KING OF ENGLAND
3 1/2 stars (Out of 4)
STARRING: Ivan Barnev, Oldrich Kaiser, Julia Jentsch and Martin Huba
DIRECTOR: Jiri Menzel
RUNNING TIME: 118 minutes
RATING: R for nongraphic sexual content and partial nudity.
THE LOWDOWN: Upon his release from prison, a man reflects on his youth as a waiter in the swankiest 1930s Czech establishments and the changes wrought by the German occupation. Subtitled