Ambitious Waiter Navigates Ups and Downs of Wartime Prague
“I Served the King of England” adds another fine film to the body of work by Czech New Wave director Jirí Menzel (“Closely Watched Trains”) and marks his first feature since 1994’s “Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin.” The film manages to be an entertaining comedy that’s breezy despite its setting in Prague, dominated by the Third Reich, during World War II — and subsequently in rural Czechoslovakia behind the Iron Curtain. It’s driven by a witty script, assured direction, lavish camerawork and relaxed acting.
Our happy-go-lucky hero, Jan Díte (Ivan Barnev), is short of height but not of ambition. He serves as an eager waiter in Prague, quickly climbing the ladder in terms of gaining his employers’ respectability. After observing the very rich at play, he decides he wants to become a millionaire. So he moves from job to job after learning what he needs to know from a particular position. He seems to make sexual conquests just as easily, too.
The World War II occupation of Prague by the Nazis doesn’t hinder his lifestyle, unlike that of many of his countrymen. Indeed, Díte actually thrives under the occupation, picking up a fiercely patriotic German wife along the way. Circumstances allow him to become a millionaire, but that doesn’t bode well during Communist rule after the war. Díte is thrown into prison, but he’s happy to be there because at least he’s with the other millionaires, where he always wanted to be.
After 15 years in prison, an older Díte is released and comes to reflect on the strange twists and turns of his life, and the role that both history and his own decisions had in shaping that life.
I Served the King of England (Obsluhoval Jsem Anglického Krále) (Czech with subtitles; 120 min.) Landmark’s E Street Cinema Opens Fri., Sept. 12
4 out of 5 stars
Director Irena Salina’s “Flow: For Love of Water,” which played in competition at Sundance 2008, isn’t the most technically accomplished documentary, but the subject matter is powerfully moving. After all, a world without enough clean water isn’t much of a world for its inhabitants. And that’s already the case today, a position Salina establishes through interviews with scientists, activists, community leaders and water company executives, who cite culprits such as drought, wastefulness, pollution and globalization.
The point is effectively underscored by crosscutting nature scenes and footage of flowing water. In Bolivia, blood from slaughterhouses reddens the water. In a South African village, locals pay more for water than inhabitants of cities do. When the villagers can’t afford to do so, they’ll drink unclean stagnant water, which can (and does) kill them.
The documentary charges that one reason for the lack of universal access to clean water is that World Bank policies have compelled many developing nations to privatize their water supply, selling to multinational corporations like Suez, Vivendi-Universal, Nestle, and Thames.
The United Nations figures that it would cost billion a year to provide clean water for the entire world. Meanwhile, Americans spend billion a year on bottled water — a global annual business worth billion. And that’s despite the bottled water industry being largely unregulated, as opposed to tap water. (In fact, it’s often simply repackaged tap water.) However, bottled water has gained notice in recent years as being a major environmental culprit because of the energy required to collect and package all those plastic bottles, as well the footprint in landfills left by the bottles themselves.
The film’s conclusion focuses on groups that are currently fighting for cleaner water, which leaves more than a modicum of hope for the viewer who might otherwise be thirsting for some good news amid all the doom and gloom.
Flow: For Love of Water (English; 93 min.) Landmark’s E Street Cinema Opens Fri., Sept. 19
3.5 out of 5 stars
Recast Your ‘Vote’
Just in time for the next election, “Stealing America: Vote By Vote” revisits the issue of irregularities in the U.S. presidential election of 2004. But a big problem is that cinematically, it’s not much of a film. Despite showing some interviews and news clips, it comes across as being not much more than a boring PowerPoint slideshow narrated by actor Peter Coyote. “An Inconvenient Truth,” itself criticized for being mostly a PowerPoint presentation (though it did have some interviews and scenic footage), feels like “Citizen Kane” in comparison.
Interview subjects in “Stealing America” include lawyer Robert F. Kennedy Jr., journalist Greg Palast, ex-Wall Street Journal editor Paul Craig Roberts, pollster John Zogby and Florida election official Ion Sancho. Additionally, director Dorothy Fadiman uses a lot of anecdotal evidence, citations from online blogs, and sometimes not much more than speculation to support the film’s positions. In fact, one of those positions is that the mainstream media has largely ignored vote-tampering incidents. I don’t really buy that thesis because the mainstream media’s reporting already made me aware of most of the problems addressed in the film.
“Stealing America” posits a liberal conspiracy theory alleging voter fraud and a fixed election, pointing to the glaring gap between exit polls and actual results. It shows evidence of much longer than normal waiting times in some precincts with predominantly black or otherwise Democratic-leaning voters, and it looks at the reported problems in accurately tallying votes using electronic voting systems.
The film next makes a big leap asserting that millions of votes and several states were switched. The issues it raises are very important, but most of the allegations of conspiracy are very hard to prove. Like many political advocacy documentaries, “Stealing America” is really preaching to the choir.
Stealing America: Vote By Vote (English; 90 min.) Landmark’s E Street Cinema
2.5 out of 5 stars
Please see International FilmClips for detailed listings available at press time.
AFI Silver Theatre From Sept. 16 to Oct. 7, the popular Latin American Film Festival, programmed by cultural officers from area embassies, returns to AFI Silver. September also brings three films in English from the late Italian auteur Michelangelo Antonioni: “Blow-Up,” “Zabriskie Point” and “The Passenger.” (301) 495-6700, www.afi.com/Silver
National Gallery of Art Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira, who started his career making silent films, receives a well-deserved retrospective at the National Gallery of Art, supported by the Embassy of Portugal. “Born 100 years ago in Oporto, Manoel de Oliveira embodies the last of the great twentieth-century auteurs,” according to the gallery. “Today he is still making cinema of profound depth and candor with a style that is recognizable but never repetitive.” (202) 842-6799, www.nga.gov/programs/film
Freer Gallery of Art Beginning Sept. 12, the Freer presents a healthy selection of Southeast Asian cinema. (202) 357-2700, www.asia.si.edu/events/films.asp
Goethe Institut From Sept. 8 to 29, the “Film Will Survive (Das kino wird überleben)” series focuses on director Alexander Kluge of the New German Film Movement. Goethe notes: “Revolting against the ruling principles of German filmmaking, he produced films that had nothing in common with the standards of his time.” (202) 289-1200, www.goethe.de/ins/us/was/kue/flm/enindex.htm
DC Asian Pacific American Film Festival The DC APA Film Festival returns Sept. 25 to Oct. 4 with screenings at the Freer Gallery of Art and other venues. www.apafilm.org
About the Author
Ky N. Nguyen is the film reviewer for The Washington Diplomat.