Bohumil Hrabal

Ill serving a sage of Czech literature

Jiří Menzel’s latest take on Bohumil Hrabal fails

I Served the King of England
Directed by Jiří Menzel
With Oldřich Kaiser, Ivan Barnev, Julia Jentsch, Martin Huba, Josef Abrhám and Marián Labuda

Contemporary Czech cinema began with the novelist Bohumil Hrabal. It was from his collection of short stories that the nascent Czech New Wave directors took their inspiration, which they showcased in the important if uneven cine-anthology Pearls of the Deep, their manifesto for change.

Among these young Turks was Jiří Menzel, who would go on to found his film career as an interpreter of Hrabal. Menzel’s screen version of Hrabal’s Closely Watched Trains remains one of the most important films of the 1960s. The director solidified this successful partnership with the writer in 1970’s Larks on a String, a film that was immediately banned by the communist authorities and remained shelved until after the revolution.

Because of this blissful marrying of two very different talents and temperaments, there was much reason to look forward to Menzel’s latest project, his adaptation of Hrabal’s rich, humane novel, I Served the King of England. Though Menzel has formulated an interesting narrative structure to contain Hrabal’s marvelous excursiveness, and has invented a handful of striking visual solutions for various scenes in the text, the whole seems soulless. Unlike Hrabal’s woodsmen, who search for spruce trees that contain a perfect pitch for the making of violins and cellos, Menzel has peeled the bark off the novel, but has failed to find the music within.

I Served the King of England is a tale of the getting of wisdom. An older, wiser man, whose name in the novel is probably Dítě, casts a glance back over his life, which was built by a series of accidents that led him from being a lowly busboy to a millionaire. The younger Dítě is blessedly naive, an attribute that will aid him in surviving Nazis, communists and other unnatural disasters.

The course of Dítě’s life is irrevocably changed by his waiter days in Prague’s bijou Hotel Paříž. Falling under the spell of the worldly maitre d’hotel, Mr. Skřivánek, who once served the king of England, Dítě will have an epiphany while serving Haile Selassie, the emperor of Ethiopia. From there, Dítě’s roving life becomes even more picaresque, as he marries a Nazi, sires a disturbed child, survives the war, makes millions from rare stamps his now-dead wife stole from Polish Jews, opens a plush resort, meets John Steinbeck, loses everything to the communists and ends up a semirecluse in the forest, where he has the leisure at last to “discover the miraculous in the human.”

Vestiges of the grace and gravity of Hrabal’s novel are here, though too much of Menzel’s handling of the material seems more clever than felt. There are marvelous moments from the book missing, of course: the hotel for the Germans heading toward the Russian Front, the Steinbeck scene and the absence of Dítě’s brain-damaged child, who, during the war, continually pounds nails into the floor, making a haunting racket akin to Oskar and his tin drum in Günther Grass’ eponymous novel.

The primary problem, perhaps, is the intrusion of Menzel’s fetish for breasts. There’s plenty of charming bedroom romps and maidenfleisch on display in Hrabal, but Menzel takes this to a lecherous extreme, even reducing the budding intellectual Marcela — whom Dítě later sees transformed by her discovery of Surrealism, and whom he realizes he finds attractive for her mind — to a wood nymph in men’s flannel, eventually to be ogled at in her bath.

Menzel’s cast is good, though, as the young Dítě, Bulgarian actor Ivan Barnev, seems more cipher than naif (in other words, he’s no Václav Neckář). But there are excellent performances by such Czech, Slovak and German stalwarts as Marián Labuda, Josef Abrhám, Julia Jentsch, Martin Huba, Jiří Lábus and Oldřich Kaiser.

The old Menzel is sporadically evident. His staging of the head-waiter Karel’s rampage in the dining room, where his anger is arrested by a vase holding a wilted daisy, is a lovely, original touch, as is Dítě’s running after a departing cattle car full of prisoners, desperate to hand one of them a sandwich. Sadly, it’s not enough to keep Menzel’s film from ringing hollow.

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