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Friday, Dec. 5, 2008

'I Served the King of England'

Life according to a Czech waiter

Watching Czech waiter Jan Dite in "I Served the King of England" traipse through some of the most tragic years his country had ever known (Nazi intervention, Soviet invasion), you're reminded of another Czech cinema antihero: Tomas (played by Daniel Day-Lewis) in "The Unbearable Lightness of Being." (Also set in postwar Czechoslovakia.)

I Served the King of England Rating: (4.5 out of 5)
Star Star Star Star Star
Dance away: A scene from "I Served the King of England." © FRANCE EIGA-SHA

Director: Jiri Menzel
Running time: 120 minutes
Language: Czech
Opens Dec. 20
[See Japan Times movie listing]

While Tomas was a handsome, roguish womanizer and dreamy intellectual, the diminuitive and babyish Jan (Ivan Barnev) starts his working life selling frankfurters in a train station. At first glance, the two have nothing in common; further examination reveals a good-natured egotism combined with a disarming but superficial innocence. The combination works like a charm on the ladies — throughout both movies, a bevy of Eastern European beauties parade in and out of both men's bedrooms even as bombs burst right outside their windows, tanks roll into their beautiful city of Prague and starving urchins roam the streets.

Tomas and Jan are fiercely but almost unconsciously apolitical; they may observe the woes of war but they'd rather stand on the sidelines and jump in only when there's something to be gained. And while Tomas had shown signs of grief and self-loathing, Jan sails through history with the supreme confidence of a head waiter who knows that empires and kings will come and go — so what? — but the world will always need men in black jackets bearing silver trays, gliding on the carpet under glittering chandeliers.

Directed by Jiri Menzel, "I Served" is a brilliant study of opportunism and apathy, in this case coexisting neatly in the compact frame of Jan Dite (Ivan Barnev). The film opens with a old, grizzled Jan (played in his later years by Oldrich Kaiser) being released after 15 years in a state prison.

Bearing no real bitterness to the government that put him there, Jan settles into the new job of roadman and takes time to remember the past. From the day he first discovered the allure of money as a frankfurter seller, Jan knew where his priorities were: himself. Waiting on tables in small local restaurants to a dream job at the luxe Hotel Paris in Prague, Jan remains endearing but unbearably uninvolved. So sensitive to the slightest niche in lucrative opportunity, he withdraws into a cocoon of unawareness in times of corruption, deceit and war. How much of this cocoon is the product of willful ignorance? Menzel (working from the original novel by Bohumil Hrabal) suggests a balance of about 70 percent with the other 30 percent allotted to Jan's genuine, inherent naivete — his last name after all, means "child" in Czech.

Wondrously, the more Jan encases himself in a thick hide of unacknowledgement ("I see nothing, I hear nothing" is one of his mantras) the more he thrives, and when he at last falls in love after a long succession of willing and winsome young women, it's with Aryan maiden Liza (Julia Jench) who professes an undying loyalty to Hitler. On their wedding night she insists on making love in front of the dictator's portrait, and already talks of the "healthy Aryan babies" she will bear and subsequently raise to be a credit to the Fatherland.

Jan, of course, is OK with that as he is with everything else. This includes witnessing his mentor headwaiter being herded into a cattle car bound for a concentration camp. It includes buying a hotel with a box of rare stamps that Liza looted from various Jewish homes in Germany.

If there's redemption in the life of Jan Dite, it's not because he served 15 years in prison, but because he came out of it unchastened and his eye for lovely women unimpaired. "I once served kings" he boasts to Marcela (Zuzana Fialova), a tousel-haired hippie he meets in the woods, and invites her to his shack for dinner. Jan Dite may be a shallow cad, but he keeps this identity pristine and intact. In spite of everything, he remained a wide-eyed child and Menzel's gaze on him, though full of disgusted cynicism, is also tinged with tenderness.

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