Czech Me In! WWII Film Makes Honest, Funny, Devastating Cinema

sarris 5 Czech Me In! WWII Film Makes Honest, Funny, Devastating CinemaI Served the King of England
Running time 120 minutes
Written and
directed by Jiri Menzel
Starring Olrich Kaiser, Ivan Bamev, Julia Jentsch

Jiri Menzel’s I Served the King of England, from his own screenplay, based on the novel by Bonumil Hrabal, has been honored as the Czech Republic’s official selection for the 2008 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. But despite the grim, Holocaustal period in which the film is set, it is mostly bubbly and ebullient in its stylistic execution. The story begins on a physically absurdist note as a markedly short convict, Jan Dite (Olrich Kaiser), is led out of prison by a much larger guard after being released from 15 years of penal servitude for having collaborated with the Nazis during the German occupation of Czechoslovakia. As Jan muses about his past, it is that of an underdog, literally and figuratively, aspiring to become a millionaire by sheer guile. Jan is played in his youth by another short actor, Ivan Bamev, who wears a perpetually goofy expression on his face as he seeks to make his fortune as a waiter in a succession of posh establishments; one of them is a virtual brothel in which Jan is initiated into the pleasures of the flesh by a series of playfully generous temptresses.

Up to this point, Mr. Menzel, now 70, seems to be engaged in fashioning a farce comedy in the manner of the directors, like Chaplin, Clair and Renoir, that he had admired as a student at FAMUS (Prague Film Academy). But then the plot takes a bizarre turn when Jan rescues a Sudeten-German young woman from a gaggle of prankish young students, whom the woman denounces as “Czech rabble.” This, mind you, in the delicate period just when Hitler was annexing the Sudetenland ostensibly at the behest of its predominantly German-speaking inhabitants, and just before he annexed all of Czechoslovakia. Jan never comes to understand all the political issues involved. All he knows is that his beloved Liza (Julia Jentsch) is the first woman he has dated and bedded who is as short as he is. Out of such face-saving epiphanies is his life composed. That is the way of the little man in human history.

When World War II breaks out, Liza decides to serve as a volunteer nurse on the Polish front. Jan is employed in an institute set up by SS head Heinrich Himmler to generate “master race” specimens from nubile German girls from the Fatherland and carefully chosen Teutonic warriors. Jan is forced to furnish a sample of his semen in order to prove that he is qualified to serve as a male nurse in this sanctified Aryan enterprise. As the war goes badly for the Germans, more and more of the male candidates arrive at the institute, missing an arm or a leg. This is part of the gruesome humor for which the earlier slapstick sequences served as a prologue. Near the end of the war, Liza is killed in an air raid as she ignobly tries to save a box with a fortune in rare stamps, which she has pilfered from the residences of Jewish deportees to the death camps.

I Served the King of England ends up a curious combination of raunchy merriment and malignant undercurrents. At one point, a character asks if Czechoslovakia is going to war, and another character answers bemusedly, “We Czechs never fight wars.” This is about as ruefully honest a confession as I have ever encountered in any national cinema.

asarris@observer.com