Septuagenarian Czech filmmaker Jirí Menzel's latest boasts the same darkly sarcastic and lyrically absurdist trademarks that fellow Czech New Wavers Milos Forman and Vera Chytilová were known for in the '60s. But I Served the King of England is hardly past its prime, and perhaps even timeless. After years in a Czech prison, grizzled everyman Jan (Oldrich Kaiser) is exiled to an abandoned German border town, where he reflects on the charmed naiveté of his youth. Flash back to the '30s, when Jan is a young, towheaded pipsqueak—now played by a sublimely likable Ivan Barnev—whose fascination with the wealthy sparks pipe dreams of becoming a millionaire. From humble beginnings selling hot dogs and working as a hotelier, Jan rises through the ranks over the decade—a climb that parallels his innocent sexual awakening. Then he falls for a Hitler-supporting mädchen (Julia Jentsch), and thus begins his unwitting collaboration with the monsters who overran his country. Though the film may be visually fanciful—as money rains from the sky, a glowing halo of light shines behind a character's noggin—any preconceived notion that this is yet another historical epic with some magic realism thrown in must be quashed. Menzel's whimsy is the means, not the end; do away with the clever style and you're still left with a rousing picaresque of life's beautiful-sad ironies.
Jentsch lures Barnev to the dark side.
Runs at Varsity, Fri., Sept. 5–Thurs., Sept. 11. Rated R. 120 minutes.