I Served The King Of England
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(15) A refreshing cynicism pervades Czech director Jiri Menzel’s satirical black comedy. It is an approach that even succeeds in making palatable his diminutive hero Dite’s marriage to a Nazi sympathiser after having to prove his suitability to wed by conveniently discovering his own German background, and then having her gaze at a portrait of Hitler during their wedding night. Menzel, adapting Bohumil Hrabal’s novel, tells the story of the rise and fall of Dite (Ivan Barnev) from keen-to-succeed-at-any-cost waiter in 1930s Prague to hotelier, who ends up serving 15 years in prison after he is jailed by the Communists in post-war Czechoslovakia. Dite’s determination to make service, however servile, pay makes him a skilful waiter, adept at providing whatever services his wealthy guests ask for. It also enables him to survive the German occupation, continuing to work at a hotel which has been transformed into a breeding centre for perfect Aryans. Barnev gives a magnificently full-of-life, un-self-pitying quasi-comic performance that makes his character strangely endearing even at his most manipulative. While Menzel never makes the mistake of making Nazi excesses acceptable, his sardonic treatment — mocking the Nazis as acidly, if less boisterously than Mel Brooks did in The Producers — hits hard. Menzel’s portrait of Dite’s continuing resilience both celebrates his nation while at the same time making the essentially Czech satire accessible to cinema audiences everywhere.