Saturday, May 5, 2012

I served the King of England (2006)

I served the king of England 2006

The Czech film I served the King of England (2006) should not be dismissed as yet another movie. For this is a quite significant statement about the meaning of life using cinematography as the medium. The movie is combination of the work of two Czech geniuses, celebrated writer Bohumil Hrabal (1914 – 1997) and Oscar winning director Jiří Menzel (1938).

Both men lived through the Communist era and experienced problems with the authorities. So we should listen carefully and try to understand what these representatives of 20th century European history are saying. For Ivan Barnev as young Jan Dítě and Oldrich Kaiser as the older Jan are unusually authentic movie characters explained by the suspicion that they portray, or so it seems to me, through the character of Jan Dítě both Hrabal and Menzel themselves.

My baby!
Jiří Menzel in 2007
Movie rights to the book by Hrabal were a matter of greatest importance to Menzel. The fight for the rights between producers culminated in violence as when Menzel actually hit his competitor with his stick.

Although he eventually won the rights in 1996 he did not make the film until 2006 and until now it has remained the director's last full-feature film. The famous stick was later auctioned...

However, the very existence of the amendment, now invalidated by Hrabal, remained secret until Nov. 30, 1995, when the original contract expired. On Dec. 6, Kachyna signed a new contract with Hrabal that gave the director and production companies Fronda Film and Whisconti the exclusive right to make the movie. This contract was confirmed by the writer on April 19, 1996.
Prague Post 1996

Touching Czech hearts
Director Jiri Menzel's 2006 movie about a Czech waiter who becomes a millionaire is based on Bohumil Hrabal's novel of the same name. The fictional waiter is affected by historical events buffeting Czechoslovakia from 1935 to 1950 or so. Menzel won an Oscar in 1968 for “Closely Watched Trains,” which is based on another Hrabal novel.

Menzel travels frequently, promoting his films around the world. He said recently that he was not interested in another Oscar and has no future film projects in the works.

More than 800,000 people in the Czech Republic have seen “I Served the King of England”, the Czech news agency said. It has also been screened at international movie festivals in Cannes, France; Sofia, Bulgaria; Sydney; Istanbul; Lisbon; Moscow; Pula, Croatia; Edinburgh and Copenhagen.

It received a critic's choice award at a Berlin festival early this year and has been nominated for the people's choice award of the European Film Academy.
Prague Post 2007

Bohumil Hrabal in 1994
This is an important movie making a statement about humanity.  Even people may not like the comparison I think this is in some ways an European counterpart to the American film Forrest Gump.

The many mirrors seen during the movie point to constant self-reflection, who are we as Czech, what did we do, what happened to the Jews in the WW II, who are we today? But it rises above nationalistic analysis and becomes a discussion on humanity: what is the meaning of all this, what is the meaning of life, death, love, separation, life as a millionaire or in utter poverty?

As a theologian I find the description of the three epochs in Czech history stylized but both accurate and scary. The happy 1920'ies nevertheless represent some sort of normalcy which is replaced first by an inhuman ideology entering the hearts of people, the absolutely horribly well-acted Liza  - Julia Jentsch (1978) - an admirer of Adolf Hitler.

After the war the Wagnerian national romantic era is replaced by the inhuman Communist ideology so well-known inside out to both the writer and director. Its chaotic futility is finely symbolized by the stupid work done in the prison picking feathers and then blowing them into a chaotic mess. The fourth epoch, the attempt to rebuild life in freedom after the fall of Communism is a refreshing return back to the normalcy in all of its austerity.

I think that the final scene is a key to understanding the philosophy of life underlying the dramatic events in Hrabal's book and Menzel's movie.  It gives in a symbolic nutshell their answer to the meaning of life:

Old Jan Dítě is shown sitting with the culinary expert from the good old times hotel. Cutting the talk short they just do the essential thing... enjoy drinking Postřižinské beer.

Hrabal's portraits on Postřižinské beers

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