Light as a Feather

‘I SERVED THE KING OF ENGLAND'

In his younger days the Czech film director Jiří Menzel was a tightrope walker, once giving moviegoers a glimpse of his skill when he played an acrobat in his own Capricious Summer (1968). Back then he walked another kind of tightrope, a political one, by making movies, such as Larks on a String, that satirized the Communist state. Forced to recant, he toppled into the safety net of apolitical filmmaking. Now, with I Served the King of England, he has made something exquisite about the perils of being apolitical at a time when politics saturates everything. This film doesn’t claim any moral superiority for political engagement, but simply offers a warning: if all your attention is on getting and spending, it will be hard to notice the political steamroller behind you, until it begins to flatten you.

Based on a novel by Menzel’s late collaborator and friend, Bohumil Hrabal (who wrote the director’s classic first feature, Closely Watched Trains), I Served the King of England tells the story of Jan Díte, a humble street vendor in Prague who one day learns a startling truth when he drops some coins in the street and sees some prosperous citizens scramble to pick them up. Apparently, money has magnetic properties and can yank even the most dignified to their knees. So, he himself will dance attendance on those who toss cash his way. After all, better to dance than to grovel. And dance he does, becoming the most graceful, the most obsequious, the sneakiest waiter in Prague, always anticipating the need of a patron before the need is uttered, whether it’s a drink or assistance with a chess move. One job leads to another: from the café to a hotel/brothel frequented by rich industrialists, from there to the best hotel-restaurant in Prague (where the maitre d’ boasts that he once waited upon British royalty); then, with the arrival of the Nazis, back to the brothel, which has been transformed by the Nazi Heydrich into a kind of breeding hostel where eugenically approved young German soldiers impregnate willing Aryan lovelies to provide future cannon fodder for the thousand-year Third Reich. When bombs demolish the hostel, our hero sells the valuable stamp collection for which his fanatical Nazi spouse sacrificed her life (she ran into the collapsing building to retrieve it) to establish himself as a millionaire hotel owner in the aftermath of the war. But when the Communists take over in 1948, millionaires are no longer tolerable and poor Jan Díte is in for some painful and lengthy reeducation.

It’s not just Jan who is light on his feet; the entire movie dances. The actors aren’t merely placed within camera setups; they are choreographed, with the camera gliding along with them. I Served is like a songless musical comedy that delivers mordancy instead of high spirits, though mordancy conveyed with such wit often arouses high spirits. The suppleness and fluidity of movement underscores Díte’s approach to life: Always be in the right place at the right time with the right commodity, be it edible, drinkable, or bedable. For those with money enough to afford such unstinting service, life can be a musical comedy and Jan will always be captain of the chorus line. It’s only when commodities begin to count less than ideology that Jan Díte finds himself undone.

Menzel’s countryman Milan Kundera called his best-known novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being. This movie might be titled The Unbearable Lightness of Getting. When one of Jan’s early mentors, a sausage-slicing-machine salesman, decorates the floor of his hotel room with his weekly profits, the bills magically levitate. And when the industrialists whom Jan once served at the pricey brothel are imprisoned by the Communists and forced to pluck chicken carcasses, the feathers levitate, for this is the new currency of the prisoners: a prescribed amount of feathers plucked on one afternoon’s work detail now earns them not rich meals or fine cigars or fancy ladies but a night’s slumber on a lumpy mattress in a bare cell. And Jan, who so wanted to be one of these rich men, has achieved his ambition, for now he is in prison with them, maneuvering for his place at the chicken-plucking table.

But that’s not the last levitation we witness. Near the conclusion, Díte, out of jail, imagines that he is opening the box of precious stamps that secured his fortune. And now the stamps ascend to heaven, to freedom from evaluation, never to be exchanged for money. Never again will Jan hustle. The Communist “reeducation” program has changed him, but not into the state cog the Communists wanted. Instead, he will now know a new sort of lightness, a kind of bare-bones freedom, as he clears roads in the countryside, labor that will never bring him a single tip. He has been reduced to drudgery, near-solitude, virtual slavery, but because the state machinery no longer takes any interest in him and has pretty much consigned him to oblivion, he now works at his own pace, can be alone with his own thoughts, and need anticipate no one’s immediate desires but his own. The man who wanted financial independence has it now, but only because he is reduced to abject poverty without any hope of climbing out of it.

To emphasize this reversal of fortune leading to a transformation of character, Menzel casts two actors as the hero: Ivan Barnev plays the young hustler. His face, resembling Roman Polanski’s (with eyes suggesting Rita Tushingham’s in A Taste of Honey), blends a waif’s pathos with a con man’s slyness, while his body has all the suppleness and speed that Díte must possess in his perpetual attendance on the rich and powerful. As the postprison, sadder-but-wiser Jan, we get the older Oldrich Kaiser, whose countenance bespeaks experience, some of it regretted, but whose eyes are looking straight ahead and past regret.

Published in the 2008-10-24 issue: 
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Richard Alleva has been reviewing movies for Commonweal since 1990.

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