Over 40 years ago, the esteemed Czech filmmaker Ji?í Menzel sketched a piquant caricature of national sensibility through the escapades of an Everyman Czech railway dispatcher in the sexy, deadpan 1967 foreign-language Oscar-winning comedy Closely Watched Trains. Now, once again drawing on the satiric novels of the late Bohumil Hrabal as his source, Menzel tweaks the essential character of his homeland through the escapades of an Everyman waiter in the sexy, deadpan, 2008 foreign-language Oscar entry I Served the King of England. And what’s news is how enduringly charming the Menzel touch remains, and how potent the existential rue that lingers after the ostensibly lighthearted parable has ended. The Czech New Wave is no longer fresh — the tidal current of cinematic interest pulls toward Romania — but in the hands of the 70-year-old filmmaker (now primarily a theater director), the sensibility still feels modern. For one thing, an assured eye for the absurd never goes out of fashion. And for another, Menzel has kept his metaphoric knife skills especially sharp by living on his home turf, rather than as an émigré, even as Fascists and Communists rolled in and out.
In I Served the King, the hapless hero is Jan Dítě (dítě means ”child”), a Middle-European Candide first seen as a worn, creased fellow released from a 15-year prison term. It’s the 1960s in Communist Prague, and Dítě’s crime was to have become a millionaire. Paroled to a deserted, former German town on the Czech border, old Dítě (Old?ich Kaiser) goes about remembering, in increments of flashback, the bygone days when he was young Dítě (acrobatic Bulgarian actor Ivan Barnev), a little fellow with Chaplinesque physical grace who climbed the ladder of ambition with amoral innocence, from hot dog vendor to lowly bar waiter to fancy Prague restaurant senior staffer — and higher. An example of his cursed/charmed life: In the 1930s, Dítě falls in love with a Hitler-loving fräulein (Julia Jentsch) just as Germany invades Czechoslovakia, tormenting the suitor’s fellow citizens. (Her idea of boudoir porn is a photo of the Führer facing the bed.)
The adaptable little man’s choices are, of course, appalling; this is a dark story as well as a frothy one. But the bubble of absurdist self-absorption in which Menzel places this specimen of man-child is exquisite. A-