A morally ambiguous fairy tale about greed, wealth, the Czech peoples, and Nazis, I Served the King of England is Czech director Jií Menzel's latest adaptation of a Bohumil Hrabal novel (his past efforts have been Pearls of the Deep, Closely Watched Trains, Larks on a String, and The Snowdrop Festival).
Jan Díte (played by Oldich Kaiser as the elder Díte, and by Ivan Barnev as the younger) is a waiter with lofty ambitions—he longs to be surrounded by millionaires and, eventually, to become one of them. (Hey, me too!) When we first see Díte, he's being let out of a Czech prison where he's been incarcerated for almost 15 years. As a condition of his parole, Díte is sentenced to pour gravel roads in an abandoned village, where at least he has plenty of time to muse on his past via flashbacks, which represent the bulk of the movie.
I know that sounds boring, but it isn't: The flashbacks, set prior to and directly following WWII, are stunning in their detail, and the younger Díte is a sometimes charming, sometimes cloying clown of a little man who dances and capers his way through a series of increasingly decadent hotels and whorehouses. Eventually, he falls in love with a Hitler-obsessed German girl and finds himself on the Nazi side of the war. "Not a good Czech," his fellow countrymen call him, and eventually, his greed lands him in jail when Czechoslovakia turns communist.
Although the plot sounds pretty dramatic (I mean, Nazis stealing Jewish gold isn't usually hilarious material), it's all handled with a light, old-timey, Chaplinesque touch by Menzel—even though Díte's character is pretty unsympathetic, the movie itself is thoughtful, and Díte's childlike bumblings are innocent enough to forgive any unintended transgressions.