It can be difficult to figure out how you feel about I Served the King of England, a highly critically acclaimed film by Jirí Menzel, who over forty years ago directed the critically acclaimed Czech film Closely Watched Trains. In the end, in spite of several whimsical and somewhat perplexing narrative indulgences, what Menzel succeeds at most is challenging our perception of a protagonist who is as charming as he is alarmingly out of touch.
Jan Díte, played wonderfully by Ivan Barnev, is a short, blond, Czech bar waiter whose sole ambition in life is to become a millionaire. Due to a long series of strokes of luck he instantly takes advantage of, he moves up the rank of his profession until he's a hotel waiter, and his ultimate dream is to become a millionaire by owning his own hotel.
Díte takes steps toward this goal by taking advantage of every opportunity that comes his way, without so much as a second thought at the consequences. He has a peculiar kind of tunnel vision, paying no mind to the big picture when World War II breaks out and the Germans occupy Czechoslovakia -- he "defends the honor" of a German woman soldier being harassed by Czechs, and ultimately he marries her. Blinded by his devotion to her, he submits his semen to be examined for suitability to impregnate a "pure" German, and eventually allows her to get him a job as a waiter at a type of resort that is more like a human breeding grounds for more fair-haired and blue-eyed Germans. All this he does without thinking about anything but wanting to be with the woman he loves.
The one thing his wife does not distract him from, however, is his desire to be a millionaire. He has a brief eye-opening moment when his wife being shipped off to the front lines forces him to acknowledge the reality of war, but soon enough he is back to working on his ambitions. There is a particularly telling moment when his wife comes back with valuable stamps she says were taken from "deported Jews" -- "Who knows where they are?" she says. The line, and Díte's attentions focused on the stamps rather than the Jews, speak volumes about the complacency and willful ignorance that occurred -- and still occurs -- among many during horrific times of war.
The way Menzel tells the story, though, it's Díte who does the telling, and in so doing, the audience is lulled into caring and empathizing with him, by his antics and his charms. But what you have to ask yourself is now much you're willing to acknowledge is evil not by direct action, but by omission -- or inaction. It's not until much closer to the end of the film that the much older Díte (Oldrich Kaiser, so close in physical appearance to Ivan Barnev that I wondered if it was Barnev in makeup), now out of a prison sentence given him in the wake of World War II simply because he had finally achieved his goal of becoming a millionaire, looks himself in the mirror and begins to judge his own moral character.
Whether his fate is due to chance or karma is perhaps up to the viewer to decide; in any case, it's a truly compelling way to present a story -- from the Czech perspective, but using a Czech character who finds himself empathizing with Nazis due to a deceptively lazy sort of innocence.
If anything weighs down potential for I Served the King of England achieving greatness -- and it comes close -- it's the odd narrative detours (what's with the white men dancing with their food while at a banquet with the emperor of Ethopia?), and most importantly, the relentlessly overbearing voice-over narration. Possibly half the words spoken in this film are heard in voice-over, a device that is both irritating and almost always unnecessary -- the fact that it's Czech makes no difference to that.
The often whimsical, fantasy-like sequences in the film are perhaps just too "deep" for me to get, or maybe they make more sense in a Czech cultural context, but the voice-over, which is patently and constantly distracting, cannot be excused in the same way. Nevertheless, thematically speaking, I Served the King of England is truly unique in its intellectual provocations, making it absolutely worth a look.