Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Nazis, Nipples & Nudes, Oh My!

How can you resist a movie in which a businessman lines the floor of his hotel room with large bills so he can savor the beauty of the money he has earned selling salami slicers?

How can you resist a movie which includes a royal feast featuring the recipe for a stuffed camel?

How can you resist a movie in which a critical sex scene involves a young woman who can only focus on the portrait of Adolf Hitler on her bedroom wall while her not-fully-German husband (who resembles a blond Martin Short) keeps pumping away in his attempt to produce an Aryan wunderkind?

Surrender, Dorothy. You can't!

From the opening credits of Jiri Menzel's I Served The King of England (which are underscored by sounds of musical mischief) to its bittersweet ending, it's hard not to be entranced, enchanted and engrossed by this sweetly tenderhearted film based on Bohumil Hrabal's novel. Using a pattern of flashbacks, Menzel allows us to contrast the resigned reality of the older Jan Dite (who has been released from jail after serving 15 years in a communist Czech prison) with the lighthearted ambition, wonder and sheer pluck of the young Jan Dite who, although short and not particularly bright, aspired to become a millionaire and buy his own hotel.

The way we choose to remember certain events in our lives is usually much more appealing than the way things actually happened. In Menzel's lovely fantasies, young Dite keeps succeeding because he is so short, sweet, and, in his own peculiar way, sensual. Scenes of seduction are often accompanied by lushly erotic music from the repertoire of classical ballet (in particular, Leo Delibes' Coppelia). Scenes which worship the wonder of food are underlined by waltzes as the camera makes love to the food with a Busby Berkeley-like synchronicity (warning: do not see this film on an empty stomach). Even the scene in which the short, tuxedo-clad Dite carries a tray filled with large glasses of milk to feed the statuesque, naked Aryan beauties at a sex spa is underwritten with a wry sense of wonder and delight.

As the young Dite, the delightful Ivan Barnev discovers the powerful effect he can have over the richest people simply by dropping a handful of coins. As the older Dite (Ivan Barnev) reflects back on his accomplishments while flirting with a younger woman, there is a sadder but wiser recognition of what is really important in life.

Throughout the film the audience is treated to the architectural riches of Prague as well as the gentility of Czech life before the arrival of the Nazis. Filled with moments of sly humor, while beautifully framing "the way things were," I Served The King Of England is a joy from start to finish. Beautifully showcased by Jaromir Sofr's loving cinematography and Ales Brezina's jazzy musical score, Menzel's film is a triumph of period cinema. I can't recommend it highly enough.

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