I admit I didn't have high hopes for I Served the King of England. The movie tells the story of a waiter whose ambition is to own a hotel and become a millionaire. On his way to realizing these goals, he marries a Nazi. Combine this with director Jiri Menzel's love of Charlie Chaplin, and in my mind it all added up to a light-hearted comedy about Nazi Germany, which is far from my favorite genre. So imagine my pleasure and surprise to find a thoughtful, original satire not so much about the power of the human spirit but about how we ignore evil, adapt to our circumstances and move on.
The story is told in flashbacks as the main character, Jan Dite, now in a small border town after being imprisoned by the Communist government for achieving his goal of becoming a millionaire, thinks back on his life and loves. The gorgeous cinematography adds to the poignancy of his story as scenes of relatively mundane things (a tree falling in a forest) to more surprising ones (a woman pouring raspberry grenadine on herself or a man laying out a carpet of money) have the grace and charm of a ballet.
This same charm is found in Dite. A small Czech man from a small town, he is fascinated by the behavior of the rich men he waits on. Dite moves through the restaurants where he works determined to learn everything he can about these privileged people so that he can become one of them. He's so busy observing the ways of the rich that he pays no attention to Hitler's rise to power and what it means to his countrymen (in one scene, he changes the radio from one of Hitler's speeches to some kicky music that better suits his mood while he tries on a medal from the emperor of Ethiopia). This political indifference makes his marriage to a Nazi a non-issue. He doesn't question her ideology or protest when his bride hangs a picture of Hitler on their bedroom wall, even going as far as moving his head so she will have a clearer view of it while they are making love.
Dite is not trying to profit from anyone's misfortunes; he's simply focused on his own ambitions and goals. He truly can't see the evil around him because of the jollity that masks the sinister nature of the Nazis' takeover. Watching the movie, I kept thinking of political theorist Hannah Arendt's famous observation about how evil can be difficult to recognize because it is often so banal. But in I Served the King of England, evil seems not so much banal as frivolous. For example, during the war, Dite works at a German reproductive center which is set up to produce perfect Aryan babies. The idea of creating master race specimens is fairly horrifying, but it's difficult to see the young women at the institute as monsters since they spend all their time frolicing and swimming nude when they aren't having sex with German soldiers.
I Served the King of England has a light touch, even while taking on subjects like evil, greed and redemption. At the end of the movie, Dite has given up his desire for success and recognition and hangs his prized medal from the emperor on a goat. As he reflects on his life, he says, "Sometimes you only become human against your will." Stripped of his ambitions for money and wanting only peace, Dite is able to realize how his desire for wealth cut him off from the reality around him.
I Served the King of England opens in Bay Area theaters on Friday, August 29, 2008.