Here's a stunning Czech sleeper loaded with so many aspects that it may take several viewings to pick up the details crammed into every shot. 'I Served the King of England' opens as a light, whimsical comedy featuring the antics of a diminutive and ambitious young waiter who wants nothing more than to make money. Ivan Barnev's peformance in the lead role is akin to Roberto Benigni's in 'Life is Beautiful,' the wonderful physicality of his humor and pratfalls, facial expressions, and comedic timing make for hilarious and touching viewing. The story is told back and forth from the perspective of an older, wiser Dite (played by Oldrich Kaiser) who is jailed by communists for the crime of being a millionaire, serving one year for each of the millions he made. The path Dite took to earn those millions is as surreal as European history itself, a history hijacked by a little Austrian corporal and a Georgian street thug. That surreal history slowly seeps into the film as Dite stumbles into a Nazi eugenics program, or his wife fervently stares at a portrait of Hitler as he makes love to her (and the wife herself briefly transmogrifies into the aforementioned diktator.)
The countryformerlyknownas Czechoslovakia is dismembered by German manuevers, British flipflopping before Churchill, and is finally devoured by that insatiable swatiska beast, yet Dite blithely continues onward, adopting a certain part to his hair, and growing a small square moustache. He collects all of the mirrors discarded by a local village, because the people believe that when they look into them, the Germans come. Sure enough, the mirror over Dite's marital bed begins to catch reflections of herr Hitler. Later in the film Dite sits before a dozen mirrors and literally reflects on his life, and each individual mirror holds its own tale of a younger Dite.
Every aspect of 'King of England' is that of a mature and accomplished filmmaker who won his first Academy back in 1966. There has been some criticism of the casual portrayal of prostitution in the film, but these are opinions made through an American filter. Many Eastern European countries had to make do with the bare necessities provided by the Germans and Russians for decades, so that sex as a trade for dinner became a sensible transaction.
If you are the type of person who idealizes foreign films, and finds them more complicated and subtle, the humor darker and sweeter, then 'I Served the King of England' will go right into your pantheon alongside 'Europa Europa', 'Life is Beautiful', or 'The Time of the Gypsies.'
There have been some complaints about the subtitles, but due to the playful nature of the film, I'm not sure that this wasn't deliberate. A character, such as Dite's wife, will speak for several seconds in German without translation, but his response to her, or the situation itself, or even occasional pauses in subtitling ensure that everything is eventually told. It may be that a modicum of thought by the viewer is required, and that puts some people off, and yes, you will even have to turn off your CellBerry and pay achtung!