15 September 2008

Why it Works

Yesterday i saw I Served the King of England a 2006 film from Czechoslovakia just now in release in the US. It's the story of a young man plunging headlong into life with all the excitement and anticipation that youth affords. It is the story of that same man many years later looking back on his life with all the sagacity and perspective age provides us. It's about life.

This film tells the story of a life replete with madcap sexual escapades, roars of laughter, wildly changing fortunes and of course Nazis. What, you wanna see the story of a shoemaker who lives in the same village for 80 years and dies a contented grandfather?

I Served the King of England follows a waiter who yearns to be among the millionaires, not just serving them. He's got a Chaplinesque ability to win our hearts though the perfectly timed slap stick, heavy doses of pathos and an uncanny knack for knocking the pompous down to size. Because our film is the 21st century we get lots of sex and naked women too. Fun.

With I Served we also get messages, symbolism and social commentary. Our hero occasionally tosses coins on the ground to watch how people respond, especially the rich (to their hands and knees they go). We see a matire d' who speaks dozens of languages (but won't speak German to Nazis) and can guess what customers will order -- after all, he is the one who served the king of England. We see a head waiter who upon dropping a dish, destroys them all and throws a massive tantrum leaving the business forever because of course that's the price of his one stumble. We see greed (greed really films well, just watch the salesman who spreads his folding money all over the floor) and we inevitably see the prices of greed -- its expensive.

We've had Chaplin and we also have Dickens. Coincidences, great riches, wrenching poverty, tragedy and triumph all befitting and befalling one plucky protagonist. So wonderfully David Copperfield! Even the protagonist as an old coot is a charmer.

We also have an abbreviated lesson on 20th century Czechoslovakian history with Nazis storming through causing havoc and pain only to be gotten rid of and followed by Godless Communists who dole out more misery. Interestingly enough our hero marries a Nazi, of all things. While he literally gets to *ahem* a Nazi he is figuratively *ahem*ed by the commies. (By the way, she liked looking at a portrait of Hitler while "doing it." Talk about kinky.)

I Served the King of England will last for hours perhaps days or longer within your heart. On the screen its barely two hours. For a life! For such a rich life! That's some seriously good film making.

The better portion of a life often makes for great cinema, especially as in this case when so much goes on and it is all so well told. Oh sure there is a distinct unreality to this life, but its a departure from the real that we can invest in. We don't have to suspend reality, just our inhibitions.

The stars are Ivan Barnev as the youthful version of the hero and Oldrich Kaiser as his older manifestation. The cast also includes a number of beautiful young scantily clad or totally unclad women. Yes, yes, yes it is all within context of the story and most decidedly not gratuitous (if that matters to you.)

The director is Jiri Menzel. Reviews and promos for this film often mention that he also directed the wonderful and wistful Closely Watched Trains. That movie was released over 40 years. Given how good these two films are its hard to imagine he's done nothing noteworthy in between. IMDb lists 18 efforts in the interim. Let's have a look at them, oh powers that be.

Meanwhile have a look at I Served the King of England. It works on a couple of zillion levels. See all the paragraphs that precede this for just a few details.

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