Do the Czechs (and their forerunners, the Czechoslovakians) have a thing for Chaplin? Or perhaps, “Czaplin”? Watching The Good Soldier Schweik and I Served the King of England in the same day, with their rather similar Chaplin-esque protagonists, makes one wonder. Like Schweik, Jan is a somewhat quiet fool who either trips or waltzes into good fortune. Unlike Schweik, Jan is crafty, clever, and usually surefooted. Probably most importantly, Jan is politically passive whereas Schweik is an activist. The earlier film fails to make an effective connection between activism and the pragmatic good, since its main character is an idiot who inexplicably comes up with the right solution to every problem he encounters. The later film at least illustrates effectively the sin of apathy, and it does so overtly by placing Jan in the heart of Nazism during WWII. Bent on becoming a millionaire and decorating women’s bodies with fruit and flowers (whatever happened to wanting to be an astronaut?). Jan succeeds to his own demise, learning and then forgetting all over again about the law of diminishing returns. Narrated by his older self now returned to “society” (though unplugged from the social pipeline), he falls back into his old vices internally if not externally, mentally if not in actions. He is the fool that he always was, but now he is older and slower. When a new maiden flirts him into running around the woods in a childlike chase, he stops and gasps for breath, but not without that youthful (read: stupid) spark in his eyes reflective of a naive embrace of the passions and refusal to grow up and find any substantial connection in another. Hardly speaking a word at all in the film (other than narration), Jan truly is a Czech stand-in for Hitler, a small “man” with excellent posture who always thinks more of himself than is fair and more of his future than his present actually allows. (He even sprouts the Fuhrer’s mustache once he’s embedded in the Reichland.)
This is the definition of an overly “political” film: when humanity gives way to politics. At the story’s end, Jan lets his stamp collection fly away, a collection that became symbolic of currency, of capitalism. It was for these stamps – ironically given to him by his German frau – that Jan went to prison for nearly 15 years, a year for every million of his monetary worth. This gesture of releasing his fortune indicates a release of the capitalism that defined the Nazi era and Jan’s success during that regime. To be trite, Jan learned his lesson, realized the shallowness of his money, and became content living in his shack in the woods. A return to his past is suggested as he turns his shack back into the tavern that it once was, but a transformation transcends his past as, this time, Jan sits down with his patron to have a beer with him. Class standing, evidently, is now leveled. Notwithstanding this epiphany, the aforementioned point about Jan’s failure to love or, for that matter, to see an attractive woman without behaving like an exceedingly polite animal toward her, still stands. How meaningful is a political or economic transformation when at a moral level a person remains the same as ever? Further, how meaningful is the transformation when, in fact, all the character has learned is that he can have all that he really wants without money? This seems less of a transformation than a realization, an arrival at a quintessentially hedonist conclusion. No real personality, no abilities that are not used for a sexual or financial goal, and no one to live for but himself.