Thursday, August 28, 2008

Masterly Menzel

I Served the King of England
Written and Directed by Jiri Menzel
Based on the novel by Bohumil Hrabal
Opens August 29, 2008

Barnev and Jentsch in I Served the King of England

For his first film in 15 years, Czech director Jiri Menzel returns to a novel by Bohumil Hrabal, whose work Menzel has adapted five times previously, most famously in the 1966 Oscar-winning Best Foreign Film, Closely Watched Trains. The sixth time is the charm: I Served the King of England is as wittily subversive as Menzel’s best works since his career began during the Czech New Wave of the ‘60s.

Hrabal’s novel–which recounts the picaresque adventures of the short-in-stature Jan Dite for two decades, ending after World War II–is a tale of delicious absurdity and devastatingly comic irony, as the amiably dunderheaded narrator continually finds himself in the right place at the wrong time, as his beloved Czechoslovakia moves from economic prosperity through being overtaken by the Nazis, and finally winning an uneasy peace. Jan becomes an enemy accomplice thanks to his marriage to a hardy German girl, goes to prison as a traitor, then gets a final chance to begin anew.

In his book, Hrabal returns to various motifs again and again; onscreen, Menzel faithfully follows its anarchic spirit, if not strictly the letter. Presenting Jan’s unbelievable story, the writer/director has omitted certain sections and even an important character, has telescoped other events and situations, and even invented incidents in an attempt to find visual equivalents to what is, after all, a wildly comic, even partly unfilmable novel.

This has good and bad effects. In the book, Jan places post-coital flower petals on his lovers’ privates; in the film, his beautifully-designed display also covers the women’s belly and breasts, with the colorful additions an amusing example of the exhilarating balance of absurdism and sentiment at the heart of both novel and film.

Less felicitous is Menzel’s expansion of a brief mention in the novel of Jan’s enjoyment after tossing coins into the air and watching civilized, even well-to-do people drop to their knees to grab it. A few funny sentences are all Hrabal needs to deflate these phonies–yet Menzel’s hero continues doing it throughout the film, which turns a subtle metaphor for greed into not a running but kneeling gag that wears out its welcome.

Nonetheless, Menzel’s mischievous but humane way of rubbing his characters’ noses in their fallibilities–a hallmark of his films from Closely Watched Trains and Capricious Summer to Larks on a String and My Sweet Little Village–is on display throughout I Served the King of England, whose title refers to the repeated refrain of a swanky Prague restaurant headwaiter who, while teaching Jan tricks of the trade, says that phrase to answer Jan’s befuddlement at his wealth of knowledge and expertise.

Unfortunately, Menzel deletes Jan’s own recurring boast, “I served the emperor of Ethiopia,” once his own social status rises; he has, however, included Hrabal’s farcical tour de force–when the ritzy hotel where Jan works is taken over for a elaborate dinner for the African leader–which is also the most sustained bit of lunacy in the entire movie.

Since Hrabal’s novel presents the events in Jan’s life chronologically, a certain narrative sameness creeps up on the reader. By shifting emphasis in the film to an older, wiser Jan looking back and intercutting past with present, Menzel avoids the novel’s repetitiveness by drawing clever parallels between Jan’s two distinct lives.

Bulgarian actor Ivan Barnev plays the young Jan with the right mix of befuddlement and a confident naivete–that he doesn’t look convincingly small enough is in fact his lone shortcoming; conversely, as the elder Jan, Oldrich Kaiser looks believably worn down. The superb Julia Jentsch plays Jan’s wife Liza–the good German who loves Jan most for his blond Aryan “look”–with good-natured humor, which only accentuates the dark humor of their scenes together: watch their big sex scene when she keeps looking at the Fuhrer’s portrait rather than her husband for a demonstration of how to underplay broad comedy.

I Served the King of England might not entirely connect with American audiences, since its pointed humor relies heavily on 20th century Czech and German history. But Menzel’s must-see adaptation of Hrabal’s must-read novel is firmly in the Eastern European tradition, finding black humor amid unspeakable horrors.

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