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I Served the King of England

Czech Jiri Menzel's new film is a delight.

I Served the King of England
A highly decorated waiter: Ivan Barnev portrays Jan Dte (center, in sash).

Jiri Menzel is a filmmaker -- has been for half a century -- and Jan Díte, his protagonist in I Served the King of England, is a hot-dog vendor at a train station who becomes a brilliant waiter at fine hotel restaurants. How could two people be more not alike?

But this is Czech cinema, where everything is irony and melancholy, the same yet different. "I've always had good luck at having bad luck," Díte says early on, and then Menzel shows us what he means.

Along the way, he looks back at his own career, recounts his country's 20th-century history, and ends with a toast to the past as present future. Sprinkled with metaphor -- some of it playfully transparent, some of it not so much -- it's pure Czech, vintage Menzel, and a thorough delight.

The story actually opens some time near the present, with a lucky Díte (played by Oldrich Kaiser) getting amnesty and ending his 15-year prison term -- three months early. How he got there, as we learn much later, is a typically Czech punchline.

He's not quite an old man yet, but he's close, and he has no place to go. So he goes to no place, a deserted town on the Czech-German border whose residents from over the years -- sometimes Czech, sometimes German, depending on the state of war -- have long since fled for one reason or another.

He takes up residence in an old pub, and he slowly restores it. He falls for a local girl who listens to the trees to see if they make music, which entitles them to be turned into instruments. And he remembers the story of his life, which he narrates as we watch it unfold, beginning in the 1920s.

The young Díte is a diminutive innocent, a blond-haired, blue-eyed "shrimp," although at times he unwittingly becomes a fox. How do you sell a cheap hot dog for 50 times its price? Sell it to a man whose train leaves the station before you can count out his change.

It seems to be an accident, this profitable mishap. But then, maybe not: Díte likes spending time among rich people only a little more than he likes clandestinely humiliating them, and he knows a few things about human nature. So when he's around them, he scatters coins on the ground, just to see men in suits get on their knees to pick them up.

With an ambition inversely proportion to his size, he becomes a waiter, moving from one posh Prague eatery to another. He loses his virginity to a girl at the local brothel, loses his soul to a girl in the occupying Nazi army, and never loses his sense of whimsy, even when a hotel where he once worked becomes an Aryan breeding center, populated by beautiful blondes who walk around naked all day. By the end of the war, it's a place where amputee German soldiers go to recuperate, swimming with whatever arm or leg they have left, if they have any at all.

I Served the King of England is relentlessly witty in every way a movie can be: Sometimes it's the dialogue, sometimes the timing, sometimes it's silence or performance or the juxtaposition of images. This is all due, I think, to Menzel's maturity and patience as an artist.

But I wouldn't call any of it black humor. The Czechs call it "laughter through the tears," so who am I to give it a new name? You don't need a degree in English to see that Díte's story is his country's, from the naïve innocence of the early 20th-century through decades of domination from outside and from within. (Díte, who ultimately becomes rich, soon loses his privilege when the communists take over.)

For Menzel, whose Closely Watched Trains was a touchstone films of an emerging Czech cinema of the '60s, I Served the King is both a return to the past and a summing up. He films a few early scenes in the style of a silent movie, and even when he's being modern, with touches of magic realism, he never seems to be too far from slightly over-cranking things. He's never given up hope, and he's never lost his sense of the precarious nature of Czech life.

Ivan Barnev, who plays the younger Díte, is lean and pale, yet his eyes look curiously old. He's an enchanting man-child in Menzel's beautifully acted film. Yet I can't fully credit all of this to Menzel, who's adapting a novel, and whose film is so completely Czech in philosophy and tone. It's as if this leonine director is channeling a culture, giving it a parting gift as his own sun sets. In Czech and German, with subtitles.


Starts Fri., Oct. 10.

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