Fifty-plus years after the Japanese surrendered, why are so many marquee auteurs still drawn to the World War II flick? In the last decade alone, Steven Spielberg, Roman Polanksi, Paul Verhoeven, and Clint Eastwood (doubling down, for chrissakes) have all taken a crack at a Greatest Generationer — a genre whose immediate relevance expired, on these shores at least, sometime around the Korean War. Enter Jirí Menzel, the Czech New Wave director whose career began with the WWII-set Bohumil Hrabal adaptation Closely Watched Trains (1966) and whose latest, I Served the King of England, is an adaptation of a Hrabal novel about Jan Díte, a reluctant Nazi-collaborating waiter.
When the movie opens, the war is over, Communism is in place, and Díte (Oldrich Kaiser, who looks like Milan Kundera would if he ever smiled) is an old man just released from prison. Most of the film is occupied with flashbacks in which Díte, chastened by incarceration, reflects on the folly of his youthful ambition to become a millionaire — an ambition that, with the help of a comely German nationalist (Julia Jentsch), leads him down the SS path.
Menzel constructs one lovely Conformist-inspired Art Deco set piece after another around the young Díte (Ivan Barnev) — e.g. a Nazi stud farm — but the whole is never more than the parts. The director’s absurdist take on mid-century moral equivocation might resonate with older Czech viewers, but it doesn’t challenge your grandparents’ stories the way Verhoeven’s Black Book and Polanski’s Pianist did. Instead, I Served is a you-need-to-eat-more-sized helping of Eastern Bloc nostalgia, the kind of outmoded generational statement that a film like 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days — still one of 2008’s best — is meant to correct.
Opens August 29 at Quad Cinema and Lincoln Plaza Cinema