| Dir. Jiri Menzel, Czech Republic/Slovakia, 2006, 120 mins, Czech with subtitles
Cast: Ivan Barnov, Oldrich Kaiser, Julia Jentsch
Review by Carol Allen
There is something about Czech story telling which is idiosyncratic to that particular people. A dark and subversive humour, sophisticated irony and a sense of the ridiculous, all of which made themselves heard even throughout years of communist repression. It's there in the sixties New Wave films of Menzel and others, in the novels of Milan Kundera, the plays of writer then president Vaclav Havel and in rock group The Plastic People of the Universe, former Czechoslovakia's answer to the Rolling Stones. It must be in the genes, as it's also there in much of the work of Czech born British playwright Tom Stoppard. And it's there in spades in this film, which reunites Menzel in a post mortem collaboration with Bohumil Hrabel, who died in 1997 and was the writer of the 20th century classic novel on which this film is based and also of Menzel's Oscar winning film "Closely Observed Trains".
The story is not about a man who served the king of England. He has just a supporting role as the sometime "maitre de" boss in the life of waiter Jan Dite (Barnov), a man who is small in height but a giant in ambition. We first meet Jan in the early sixties, a world wearily resigned figure, played as a middle aged man by Kaiser, on his release from some fifteen years in jail. Settling in a decrepit border town abandoned by the Germans after the second world war, he reflects on his life, his loves and his ambition to be a millionaire and own his own hotel in the years between the wars and into the era of Nazi occupation, where he marries a German girl (Jentsch), who is a fervent believer in the philosophy of Aryan purity. Through her he finally achieves his heart's desire, only to have it snatched away from him by the new communist regime.
Jan is not an admirable man, but Barnov gives him an almost Chaplinesque quality, which captures our empathy. He's a sort of moral innocent, working his way up from a humble pub to serving in the luxury hotels, restaurants and brothels first in the apparently golden era of sophistication and carefree sexual naughtiness of the twenties and thirties and later servicing the wartime occupying army. There's a wealth of sexual situations in the film but presented as artistically pretty and funny rather than sordid. It's a sad but comic odyssy for Jan, as he gets nearer and nearer to his goal, climbing the slippery pole of obsequiousness and then Nazism, being ostracised by his fellow Czechs for his collaboration and later marriage and never losing sight of his aim. And when he finally wins his prize, it is snatched away from him within months, a débâcle which he greets with a resigned shrug, as he is escorted off to jail for the crimes of capitalism and profiteering - one year for each of his fifteen millions. The film is very stylish, combining historical accuracy of detail with an almost fairy tale feel to its story telling. It is unlike any other comedy you're likely to see this year.