Chaplinesque fable has an airiness that masks its tragic undertow.
Jirí Menzel's "I Served the King of England" is a tragedy with the lyrical airiness of a Chaplin movie. The tonal disparity may befuddle audiences accustomed to having their "serious" films weighted with gravitas. But Menzel, the Czech director best remembered for "Closely Watched Trains," understands a great truth of life (and art): The human comedy is an inextricable mix of sadness and elation.
Jan Díte – his name means John Child in Czech – is first seen in the early 1960s as an older man (played by Oldrich Kaiser) living out his spartan existence in a near-deserted town on the Czech-German border. He was sent here following his almost 15 years of incarceration by the Communists, and before long, through flashbacks, we see what came before.
The young Jan (played with lyrical panache by Ivan Barnev) is first glimpsed in the mid-'30s selling hot dogs at a train station and dreaming of becoming rich. Although he has a jaundiced view of millionaires – he likes to throw coins onto the street and watch the wealthy, as well as the poor, scramble for them – he also wants to be a part of the club. Short and towheaded, he's improbably quick, almost balletic, on his feet. This is a talent that serves him well when he becomes a waiter at a posh restaurant. Its imperious headwaiter boasts that he once served the King of England, and Jan one day gets his chance to wait on the Emperor of Ethiopia and his entourage. (The emperor is even shorter than Jan, which makes for some delicious slapstick.)