22 January 2008 | sjbrook1
The pitfalls of being unpolitical
Like the butler played by Anthony Hopkins in the 1994 film "The Remains of the Day", the waiter at the centre of "I Served the King of England" (Jiri Menzel, Czech Republic, 2006) is not interested in politics. Major historical events surround him, yet these completely escape his attention. His ambition is simply to become a millionaire, like the fat cats he serves at table. In 1930s Prague, Hitler, in Berlin, is making a radio announcement about his aim to "liberate" the Sudetenland. Bored, Jan Dite, the waiter, simply turns the dial to a dance music station.
He manages to float through the Nazi invasion, first of the Sudetenland, then of Czechoslovakia. By a combination of hook and crook, he achieves his ambition of owning his own hotel through the sale of valuable stamps, stolen from a vanished Jewish family. This does not give him a moment's pause but later, when he sees a trainload of Jews in cattle-cars moving off to Auschwitz, he has a rush of compassion and chases after the train in an attempt to hand the deportees a sandwich. After the war, as a self-confessed millionaire, he is sent to prison when his hotel is nationalised. He emerges fifteen years later, older, but not much wiser. He is Schweik, but without the latter's sly intelligence.
This sketchy summary cannot do justice to a film which has been described as a near-flawless masterpiece, in which "Prague has never looked better". It is permeated with the ironic wit which marked Menzel's earlier films, such as the Academy Award winning Closely Watched Trains (1966). Dite befriends the German girl Liza, described by one reviewer as "the sweetest little Nazi in the history of the cinema". They are in bed, making love in the missionary position. Liza keeps pushing his head aside so that she can gaze at the big picture of Adolf Hitler on the opposite wall. Such was love in the Third Reich. The scene in which Dite is undergoing a racial fitness test which involves giving a sperm sample is intercut with young Czech men being unloaded from a lorry at an execution ground. Of this, Dite is blissfully unaware.
The Remains of the Day was based on a serious and perceptive novel by Kazuo Ishiguro. The genesis of I Served the King of England, by contrast, was a comic novel by Bohumil Hrabal, a book I cannot wait to get my hands on. Any offers?