Timing, the experts say, is everything in comedy. What no one agrees on, though, is when the timing is right for tragic events to become permissible fodder for comedy. It is difficult to know when enough time has passed that an atrocity can be remembered with anything other than horror. Recent films, such as Life is Beautiful (1997) and Bon Voyage (2003) have been accused of trivializing the events surrounding the Nazi occupation of Europe, with fierce objections raised toward anything that could make the Holocaust seem heartwarming. I Served the King of England, a new film by Jiri Menzel, director of Closely Watched Trains (1966), certainly has its share of goose-stepping mimicry, but its darkly comic gaffes are countered with an awareness of the absurdity of blind devotion to any ideal, whether it's gourmand excess, extravagant wealth or Aryan superiority.
"It was always my luck to run into bad luck," our protagonist notes in voice-over as he is released from a 15-year prison sentence. Conscripted to build rural roads while enduring a peasant existence, Czechoslovakian waiter Jan Dite (the elder version wonderfully inhabited by Oldrich Kaiser) reflects back on his fanciful life in pre-war Prague. Young Dite (Ivan Barnev) is a diminutive fellow, but what he lacks in height, he makes up for in industriousness. Harboring a desire to become a millionaire, he climbs through the ranks of the hospitality business, catering to the very men whose wealth and capacity for leisure he hopes to match. While money is his true love, Dite also has a penchant for the pleasures of the flesh, and his randy exploits with female coworkers necessitates frequent job-hopping. As Germany begins encroaching on the Czech Sudetenland borders, Dite finds himself falling for Lize (Julia Jentsch), ein Madchen aus Deutschland whose only objection to marrying him is the indeterminate quality of his genetics. Once Dite demonstrates to medical examiners the adequacy of his ejaculatory emissions, the two wed and the adopted comrade is employed at a military-run eugenics center, where virile German soldiers patriotically breed with the choicest specimens of Aryan femininity. The elder Dite ruefully narrates these tumultuous events, so starkly contrasted with the quiet mountain life he leads after the collapse of the Third Reich.
Director Jiri Menzel does a masterful job of interposing broad slapstick with gentle wry humor. While the subject matter of the film is frequently distasteful, it almost never ventures into gross-out territory, and many of the gags serve as a sophisticated tribute to the physical comedy of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. The utilization of slightly sped-up montages stylistically reminds us of this era, as does the sassy soundtrack. Solid acting performances (particularly by the two actors sharing the protagonist role) and a top-notch production design contribute to a well-executed film, although its artistic merits are definitely a matter of taste.
Dite is one of the more curious characters in modern film. Instantly likable due to his Chaplin-esque eccentricity, his charm begins to wear thin as we witness his willing ignorance of the monstrous actions being committed around him. His eagerness for wealth and pleasure appears to supersede any national pride or moral objections. And yet, we cannot dislike him, watching his fierce defense of Lize or as he tries to offer food to concentration camp-bound prisoners. We gradually see that his seemingly simple nature is feigned, a cowardly yet understandable coping mechanism. More than this, it is a learned behavior due to years of discrimination and censure by a vertically biased society. As the film doesn't picture any of his time in prison, we can only imagine how this foppish caricature became the ruminative, communal man who recounts his youthful folly with the same chagrin as a father whose children learn of his wayward past. He understands, as do the makers of this film, that if you can learn from the mistakes you made yesterday, you will be a lot happier if you find the humor in them tomorrow.
I Served the King of England offers much with its lively tone and biting social commentary, but its unpalatable topics are only slightly sweetened by its ultimately decent message. Constantly amusing and occasionally hilarious, the subject matter is shock-inducing enough to assure that the laughter is short-lived. It's in the uncomfortable position of both challenging and rewarding the audience, and the mixture does not always go down without inducing a bit of nausea. While a success in the entertainment department, future audiences should be warned: this isn't an easy film to swallow, and your laughter will not be handed to you on a silver platter. It's a dark film that tastes like dark chocolate—bitter, but delicious if you like that sort of thing.