A prickly fable about a Prague waiter’s rise and fall in the 1930s and ‘40s, I Served the King of England moves between moments of scathing satire and passages of florid romanticism. It’s a strange approach, but the result is a beautiful film about ugliness, brutally funny and wise.
The waiter in question, Jan Diti, is a small man with large ambitions, who possesses not only the mischievous mannerisms of Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp, but also that same lack of guile. Diti seems quite innocent, and as a result, is ripe for corruption. The film charts his rise in fortunes, from his beginnings as a waiter in a local bar to bigger and wealthier establishments where he measures his own worth by the importance of those he serves. All the while, the world slips steadily into World War II, and Diti continues his pursuit of wealth and power, seduced by pleasure and driven by a very innocent but unmistakable greed.
The film’s style is broad enough to include a parody of silent-film comedy, while also engaging in vividly poetic touches, like the woman who—to spite Diti’s employer for reprimanding the waiter after spilling a drink—pours two glasses of raspberry grenadine over her head. As she walks down the street, bees flutter about her, drawn to her sweetness. If this sounds a tad ridiculous, that’s because it is, and if it sounds beautiful, that’s because it is too.
In a different film, such flights of whimsy might seem unbearably precious, but I Served the King of England is grounded in a scabrous sense of humour. Sex and politics intertwine uncomfortably. Greed is routinely skewered with contemptuous glee. In a running gag, Diti delights in throwing his spare change on the ground in front of millionaires, and then stepping back to smile smugly as they drop to their knees and dig for a few coins to add to their fortunes.
And yet throughout, Diti remains a seemingly harmless, sympathetic fellow, even as he begins to ape Hitler’s hairstyle and blithely winds up collaborating with the Nazis. The film, much like Diti, proceeds through events in a hapless, bemused manner, but beneath its droll surface is a troubling story of how easily innocence is made complicit with evil.