This film has a lot going for it. I like its complexity, I like its use of visuals, and I like its ambition. It has the feeling of a complex novel without trying to be a novel (it’s adapted from a novel). I like its admixture of political satire and gentle humor, and its Charlie Chaplin homages. I like its European feel, its understated suggestion of violence rather than overt violence, its antihero’s lack of heroism. Oh, and the frolicsome, happy, beautiful, naked young women.
The film operates at two levels that I can discern, one of which is a gentle rebuke for people who place money ahead of morality and ethics. The central character wants to be a millionaire (be careful what you wish for) and to own a hotel (i.e. to profit from servilely serving the rich). He essentially betrays his country for a pretty young woman, but then again who among us wouldn’t?
The other level is a look at how little Czechoslovakia managed under powerful neighbors, first Nazi Germany and then the USSR. In the film, some Czechs resist, and pay for it; most compromise, and also pay for it, just a little bit less and a little bit later.
I Served the King of England evokes Voltaire’s Candide, in that the central character experiences and witnesses vast sufferings and changes of fortune, and ends up having finally learned to value of simple pleasures in modest circumstances.
A film cannot very well deal with these themes set in central Europe in the 1930’s and 1940’s without reference to the murder of Jews and others, and here the film’s light touch leaves me vaguely uncertain. Our central character, the simple-minded Chaplinesque waiter, makes one impulsive humanitarian gesture in the right direction, but he is essentially oblivious to what is going on around him. Americans today seem similarly oblivious of our wars.
The protagonist’s inattentiveness is probably not far from historical reality, alas. The central character’s wife is the most lovable Hitler fan you can imagine, because she is so fatuously, innocently, youthfully, slogan-believingly unaware, not to mention cute and well meaning, but we all know that if enough people are stupidly, innocently unaware, lots of cattle cars can go through town without impediment. This is the tension of the film that I value (I distrust films without moral ambiguity, given what human nature is).
And the film does deal with universals that transcend (while incorporating) even the most horrifying of historical events, deep matters of how one is to live life. The film suggests the unpredictability, the cosmic irony, the absurdity of life, the foibles more than the crimes of humanity. Because the central character is essentially good hearted, if a slow learner who is never able to get beyond himself, the viewer has that discomfort that I think all art should produce in us.