Wednesday, March 12, 2008

59. Veteran Czech director Jiri Menzel's "I Served the King of England" (2006): Social and political satire at its best

The works of Czech director Jiri Menzel constitute a tasty cocktail of humanism and laughter. In I served the King of England this cocktail is personified in the words spoken by the narrator and lead character early in the film: “It was always my luck to run into bad luck.” As in this film, Menzel’s innocent male country bumpkins have simplistic goals in life—get rich and charm the beautiful woman in their horizon. His films remind you of the social satire embedded in the works of Charles Chaplin and the visual gags in the cinema of Buster Keaton. Only Menzel’s body of work adds a dose of moral ambiguity that would be apparent only if you reflect on what was presented.

While Menzel’s cinema is often mistaken as being essentially portraying his genius, he actually rides on the shoulders of three major literary giants of the former Czechoslovakia—-Bohumil Hrabal, Vladislaw Vancura, and Zedenek Sverak. Menzel’s cinema provides a convenient “easy read” of the fine literary tradition to which Milan Kundera belongs, by bringing slivers of statements and observations, as recorded by these novelists, on the cinema screen. Menzel’s true artistic contribution is making the written word look attractive on screen with imaginative visual gags. Menzel's use of the camera angles and perspectives to bring out what was literary humor is truly remarkable for any student of cinema. The spoken words used in narration (the writer’s contribution) and carefully chosen actors serve as the pivot to enjoy the visual feast of Menzel’s cinema. His mastery of visual comedy has made a major difference to Czech cinema being associated with comedy and the related world of animated comedy rather than drama, quite unlike other East European cinema where tragedies and serious drama overshadowed the comedy genre.

I served the King of England is the sixth work of Hrabal that Menzel has adapted on screen—-the first being Closely watched trains (1966), a comedy film that is included in the Time magazine’s list of 100 most important films ever made.

Politicians find satire uncomfortable. It is not surprising that Hrabal’s novel I served the King of England was banned for years. When ultimately Menzel made it into a movie in 2006 using Hrabal’s script it won the FIPRESCI prize at Berlin and a handful of other minor awards. Menzel’s cinema (and Hrabal’s novels) has considerable political and social criticism. The film opens with clemency/pardon given to a prisoner who has almost completed his jail term. Communist political bigwigs wish to ape the capitalists, without a clue of what is required to gain social respect. Hrabal’s script is clearly critical of the communist regime: “People who said social work was ennobling were the same men who drank all night and ate with lovely young women seated on their knees." Butlers act superior to their new masters who do not know social etiquette. The new Czech communist politicos bend over backwards to please any one with the remotest of Russian credentials. It is no small wonder that Hrabal got into trouble with the authorities until the political regime changed in recent years.

Apart from political criticism, social criticism of Czechs get liberally dished out in the film. When the physically short-statured waiter Jan Dite (literally translated as Johnny Child) throws coins on the floor for fun, rich and poor Czechs crawl without social distinction on the floor to pick up the money, allowing the short-statured waiter to look down at those he was serving and emerge physically and socially “tall” for a brief period. There is another line that Hrabal/Menzel uses to describe Czechs and their actions over the decades “Czechs do not fight wars—therefore we were not invaded, we were annexed.” These are lines that will make many laugh, but these lines could make the author/ the director unpopular with a few who cannot take self criticism.

The quest for money and riches underpin I served the King of England in particular and much of Menzel’s cinema and any critical comment on such aspirations went down well with the old Communist regime in the former Czechoslovakia. Early in the film, the lead character is shown selling sausages at a railway station. So engrossed is he in counting the change he has to return to a customer who has given him a big bank note, that he is too late to notice that the train is pulling out with the angry customer fuming that he has been cheated of his change. But Hrabal and Menzel, you will recall, had together done a similar scene in Closely watched trains where a train pulls out as the young hero is about to kiss his love with eyes closed, taking away his beloved girl whose eyes are ironically open and the girl is agitated that the kiss was missed.

Chasing opportunities to make money is a recurring theme in I served the King of England. The anti-hero of the film has one ambition: become a millionaire. Another colorful character in the film keeps himself amused spreading out cash on the floor like a carpet. Money is what waiters get as tips if they are good and smart, sometimes enough to buy up the hotel as shown in this film. He gets a medal from an Ethiopian Head of State, modeled on the physical attributes of Haile Selassie; merely because he can bend down to receive it. He gets a huge tip because he is always strategically near to a rich guest doling out largesse.

After one has laughed sufficiently, one could reflect on the less obvious but darker side of Hrabal/Menzel’s contribution to cinema. Their women are lovely to look at. They bear a striking common factor—-they are all there to be won. They are to be used, often as useful commodities, by people with money and power. One Nazi girl makes love with our anti-hero, thinking of Hitler during the act. Interestingly, you do not see Hrabal and Menzel developing the women characters as they do their male ones. Hrabal lived alone with cats until he died precisely as he described a character’s death while feeding pigeons in a story he had written, which could well have been a suicide. Hrabal's own life seemed to be a lonely one, preferring cats to women. Hrabal and Menzel’s anti-heroes are “outsiders” in the society they live in, even though they made so many of us to laugh. In this film, the anti-hero is dismissed from his job because he is not a "good" Czech. But we, as viewers seem to love the "bad" Czech.

I served the King of England are the spoken credentials of a respected waiter in the film as he trains the lead character of the film. Yet the film is about a successful Czech who became a millionaire as he had dreamt, who married a Nazi and had enjoyed life when other Czechs were being led to the gas chambers, and was finally imprisoned when the Communists came to power. Was our anti-hero a winner or was he a loser? Hrabal and Menzel may have given us great comedy over six films. Evaluate the content closely and there is more to their work than pure comedy.

P.S. The famous Hungarian director Istvan Szabo gives a rare cameo appearance of a rich stock-market investor in this movie.

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