Along with early Milos Forman films like Loves Of A Blonde and The Firemen's Ball, Jiří Menzel's 1966 feature Closely Watched Trains, which won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, ushered in the Czech new wave, a brief but potent movement characterized by a mix of dark comedy, political tartness, and underlying humanism. When the Soviets all but extinguished the new wave in the late '60s, many directors (including Forman, who went on to make One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest and Amadeus) fled to the West, but Menzel stuck around and made only a couple more movies—1969's long-banned Larks On A String (which didn't surface until 1990) and 1985's Oscar-nominated My Sweet Little Village. They never got much recognition abroad.
Forty years after his breakthrough, Menzel has returned with I Served The King Of England, and it's like he never left. A ribald black comedy about the perils of greed and apathy, the film has all the hallmarks of the Czech new wave: It's provocative, sexually frank, politically engaged, and loaded with historical absurdities and ironies. Opening in Prague in the mid-1930s, it stars Ivan Barnev as a sprightly young go-getter whose desire to become a millionaire blinds him to anything else of importance. He climbs his way up the service ladder, first selling frankfurters at the train station, then working in a pub, and finally getting waitstaff jobs at high-end hotel restaurants. He firmly believes his proximity to the wealthy will give him the wisdom he needs to achieve wealth himself. When Hitler seizes the Sudetenland and starts breaking Czechoslovakia apart, Barnev is so thoughtlessly apolitical that he falls in love with a fervent German nationalist (Julia Jentsch). (How fervent? She stares at a portrait of Hitler when the two make love.)
Adapted from a novel by Bohumil Hrabel, who also wrote Closely Watched Trains, I Served The King Of England uses a mostly clunky, unnecessary framing device that catches up to Barnev (now played by Oldřich Kaiser) 14 years after he went to prison for selling stamps that Jentsch lifted from Jewish homes. Perhaps Menzel felt the extra perspective was necessary, but his naïve hero's madcap journey through history speaks well enough for itself; it's a measure of Menzel's humanity that he can find redemptive, even loveable qualities in a character so comically oblivious. I Served The King Of England views diabolical events from the sidelines, something like The Remains Of The Day reworked as an absurdist comedy.