Service With Distraction
2006 // Czech Republic - Slovakia // Jirí Menzel // September 23, 2008 // Theatrical Print
B - Jirí Menzel's I Served the King of England boasts an undeniably mischievous, gloriously giddy tone. Flashes of the grotesque and wearisome melodrama lurk in its corners, but on the whole it is a winsome film, and eagerly so. Its genre-tripping acrobatic feats—twists and twirls of fable, slapstick, satire, tragedy, and World War II epic—certainly set it apart from any other film I've seen this year. What elevates Served above an amusing novelty for its own sake is Menzel's ambition to craft both an engaging character study of lingering adolescence and a penetrating allegory about twentieth-century Europe (and you don't need to be a critic or a historian to discern how these are related.) This ambition lurks just beneath the film's pleasurable, often schizophrenic surface, defying the instinct to dismiss Served as a quirky diversion. To be sure, the film holds shortcomings that cannot be dismissed, particularly the trite, manipulative turns in the story and some woefully dull patches in a work otherwise so filled with motion and delight. However, these are small potatoes alongside the film's sensual joys, its unexpected thoughtfulness, and the lead performance by Ivan Barnev, who guides us on a rapturous and insightful comic journey.
Served begins with the release of diminutive Jan Díte (Oldrich Kaiser) from a Communist prison in 1960s Czechoslovakia. Paroled to build gravel roads in the Bohemian wilds, Jan reminisces about the meandering path his life has taken, in between pining for the young, flirtatious Marcela (Zuzana Fialová), another ex-convict released to work for the state. In flashback, we witness Jan's life spent serving at the feet of the wealthy, as well as his unquenchable passion to one day be a millionaire himself. In the pubs, brothels, and four-star hotels of 1920s and 30s Prague, a young Jan (Barnev) waits on the Czech elite, always walking a tightrope between ambition and monkey business. Crisp perfection establishes his reputation, but it is his impish character that wins him friends and allies. He is fascinated by the power that money has over people, and he marvels at the childlike happiness of the supremely wealthy. He tosses handfuls of coins to watch Czech tycoons scramble for them, and, following the example of genial meat-slicer salesman Mr. Walden (Marián Labuda), he meticulously lays out his paper currency and basks in it. Women hold a comparable wonder for Jan, and he pursues them with zeal and adoration.
Jan is not so much swept along by history as he deftly rides it like a keen-eyed surfer, always on the lookout for trouble and openings. The rise of National Socialism complicates his endeavors, as his fellow Czechs shun and scorn the ethnic Germans in their midst. This includes Líza (Julia Jentsch), a Rhineland beauty as deficient in stature as Jan. Despite her disturbing fetishism for der Fuehrer, something about her undisguised devotion to Jan—as a partner, rather than an object of pity or sport—sparks real love in the little waiter. Then the march of the Nazi war machine turns the tables in Prague, and the Czechs are suddenly second-class citizens. Jan attempts the delicate waltz expected of pliant Slavic subjects of the Reich, all the while working towards his dreamy future as a wealthy hotelier.
Menzel leaps back and forth between these flashbacks and Jan's reflections in the gray post-war present, a time enlivened only by the prospects of an erotic tumble with Marcela. In theory, the use of these twin storylines makes sense, structurally speaking, but Menzel loses his way somewhat in the latter-day sequences, getting bogged down in rambling musings and alleged tensions far less intriguing than those of Jan's past adventures. Still, Kaiser's handsome Czech countenance and the combined mirth and sadness in his eyes command our attention, while the dreary, almost medieval quality to Communist Czechoslovakia serves its purpose in contrasting with the glittering opulence of the pre-war era. In truth, Menzel positively revels in the decadence of a vanished Prague, luxuriating in its food, drink, women, and aristocratic excess. At times, Served takes on the surreal, tableau qualities of a Gilliam feature, as when Jan serves milk to a gaggle of nude Teutonic beauties at a Reich "breeding facility," or when pudgy Czech diplomats dance is ecstasy while dining on roasted camel.
There is a cartoonish quality to the characters that populate Served, and especially to Jan himself, that lends them a vividness and also an unfortunate distance. The film's preference for caricature over authentic characterization curtails the possibilities for empathy and for a sense of true peril. When events turn tragic, the effect is ultimately coercive or even outright cheap. Fortunately, Menzel finds ways to charm us with his players and convey the striking qualities of their various social plights. Barnev in particular holds much of the film's weight on his slim shoulders, discovering Jan's inner tribulations with clarity and affection. A curious hobgoblin winding his way through an epoch of possibility and ruin, Jan nurtures his obsessions, even as the tumultuous events around him reveal flashes of his hidden compassion, vulnerability, and bitterness. Gleeful and grasping, Jan is easily dazzled and not above blockhead risks. He is painfully aware of his place in the order of things, but also oddly oblivious to the more abstract motives of others. Rarely has the phrase "man-child" seemed more appropriate.
Menzel also gracefully conveys a symbolic dimension to Jan's character, one reflective of a forgotten stripe of twentieth century European life. Not so much opportunistic as naive and diligent, Jane rides out the blackest years of human history on fortitude, canniness, and sheer luck. Despite the stigma of Nazism in Prague during the early years of the war, he aligns himself with its trappings out of affection for Líza. Under occupation, he reaps the benefits of this early loyalty, but he doesn't seem pleased or ashamed with himself, just bewildered. For all of Served's cartoon silliness, the director exhibits little patience for Good Guy / Bad Guy dualities. Nearly every character that Jan stumbles across reveals a capacity for both brutality and gentleness, honor and cravenness, vanity and selflessness. Menzel's achievement lies in the way that this ambiguity never seems contrived. Through a lens of comic book folly, he shows us that ambiguity is always there, the ugly secret of a history too often writ as stark morality play. Most pointedly, Served suggests that time is rarely kind to either aspirants or survivors in the end, and that escaping with one's skin is often the best that one can hope for in a world battered by shifting and violent ideologies.