One of last year’s the most under-distributed and underseen major European imports, Jirí Menzel’s “I Served the King of England” (2006) is lovely, silly, damnable antique, willfully pre-feminist and hopelessly out of fashion. The film, after all, dares to etch out Czech life under the Nazi occupation as preposterous farce, and it hardly halts there in favoring live-it-up hedonism over the grim realities of history. Menzel and his famous co-writer Bohumil Hrabal (who was enough of an institution to warrant a detour for a visiting President Clinton in 1994, and the two hit the local public house for a beer) had been through the Germans, Communist rule and the Soviet invasion, and it’s difficult to argue that they haven’t earned their esprit — their two best films, “Closely Watched Trains” (1966) and “Larks on a String” (1990), similarly, and with exhilarating perverseness, portray oppression as absurd comedy, insisting that totalitarianism in all its forms is no match, in the long run, for sex and romance and sensual indulgence and ironic good humor.
It’s a bildungsfilm, a hotelier picaresque, the story of Jan, a diminutive Czech lad (Ivan Barnev, whose reaction shots have a loose-grinned, Muppet-like innocence) who longs to be a millionaire in the mid-war years, by way of being the best table waiter in Bohemia. He entertains himself by watching rich men grovel for the loose change he surreptitiously tosses to the floor, while a millionaire client entertains himself by carpeting his hotel room with a geometric grid of 1000 crown notes. Everybody’s entertaining themselves, which is part of Menzel and Hrabal’s narrative syntax — even a peachy young whore soaked to the skin in a rainstorm finds impish joy in a bar full of old men ogling her. (She’s characterized in the hero’s view as walking down the street in a flimsy flowered dress, surrounded by hovering bees.) In the film’s framing scenes, with the older, ex-con Jan carving out a place for himself in a Sudetenland bar left abandoned by expelled Germans after WWII, a wild young woman, sent to the forest in search of “musical” spruces from which to make violins, sits drinking tea as a giant tree is cut and crashes down within a foot of her. She doesn’t flinch, but only casts a foxy eye up at Jan. “And I longed to undress her,” he says in his narration. It’s that kind of movie.
Jan’s “playfulness” in bed — the word rings through the movie like a credo, even as it boils down often to cunnilingus, mirrors and the nude-decorative use of flowers and food — maintains him as the Old World opulence of the ’20s and ’30s gives way to the war (when Jan works at a posh retreat for Aryan breeding maidens, who frolic naked in the sun like blonde dryads). And of course the disillusioning Communist life to be had afterward, bringing a comeuppance to some but merely an ironic twist of fate to Jan. Menzel locates the zest and juiciness of life in grotesque aristocratic opulence (there’s even a hotel with a vomitorium) and within abject poverty, equally — he parodies it all and celebrates it all. It’s no indication of depth of vision, certainly. But an unassailable love of life, an appreciation of absurd fortune and good pilsener and lobster and avuncular old coots and beautiful young women in thin silk shifts, all in the face of the 20th century’s tribulations, is nothing to sneeze at, either. Na zdraví!