“I Served the King of England” is as emotionally dynamic as its hero, a simple waiter who longs to become a millionaire in prewar Europe.
That premise belies a gorgeously constructed feature, one that spans the darkest chapters of the 20th century.
“England” opens with Jan (Oldrich Kaiser) being released from a communist-era Czech jail after a 15-year sentence. We don’t know the older man’s crime, but the story quickly flashes back to his younger self, played by Ivan Barnev. He’s a blond waiter at a Prague hotel, and a diminutive one at that. He longs to stand tall alongside the Czech millionaires he serves.
And why not? The men gorge themselves on food, drink to excess and often bed the loveliest lasses in the countryside. Director Jiri Menzel (1966’s “Closely Watched Trains”) captures it all with an eye for whimsy and detail.
Jan absorbs every ounce of the millionaires’ life, both their lifestyle and any lessons he can glean from them. He dreams of owning his own hotel and being just as rich as his bloated customers.
He entertains himself by flinging coins across the floors where he works. The sight of rich men scampering for a few precious coins temporarily balances the social scales, much to his - and our - delight.
Jan’s thoughts never explore the dark side of their appetites or the political upheaval swirling through Europe in the 1930s.
That changes when the drums of war start beating across Europe. Adolf Hitler’s armies are infiltrating Czechoslovakia, and Jan has the misfortune of falling in love with an Aryan temptress (Julia Jentsch). That unexpected romance threatens his career advancement and changes the course of his life.
The flashback format enables us to witness the sea change in our protagonist. The young Jan is a social climber, a man who toils endlessly for the right to join the ranks of those he serves. The older Jan just wants to live his years in peace and possibly romance a local woman decades his junior.
“Served” delivers more than stinging critiques of the upper class, capitalistic excess and communism. We’re treated to visually provocative moments such as the sight of a wealthy salesman lining up cash across his hotel room floor only to watch the bills flutter and fly when an unseen wind strikes.
Not far beneath the beautiful imagery of “England” lies the horrors of the Nazi regime, portrayed here in ways both fresh and horrifying. Jan bids adieu to his love as she streaks away on a train bound for war, while another train next to it is jammed with prisoners bound for concentration camps.
For a spell, Jan works at a Nazi research center where strong, healthy German women await impregnation by German soldiers. However, as the war winds down, the center transforms into a retreat for limbless soldiers.
Several sequences in “England” play out like an homage to the silent-film era. Mr. Barnev isn’t as demonstrative as a Buster Keaton or a Charlie Chaplin, but his alert eyes make him a more-than-suitable anchor for these fully realized set pieces.
“I Served the King of England,” based on Czech author Bohumil Hrabal’s book of the same name, finds the humanity stirring within Nazi-era Europe within the tiny frame of a status-seeking waiter.
TITLE: “I Served the King of England”
RATING: R (Adult language, sexual situations, violence and frequent nudity)
CREDITS: Directed by Jiri Menzel. Written by Mr. Menzel based on the book by Bohumil Hrabal. In Czech with subtitles.
RUNNING TIME: 118 minutes
WEB SITE: https://www.sonyclassics.com/iservedthekingofengland
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS