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SHOP ON MAIN STREET, THE (Obchod na korze) (directors: Ján Kadár/Elmar Klos; screenwriters: story by Ladislav Grosman/Ladislav Grosman/Ján Kadár; cinematographer: Vladimír Novotný; editors: Diana Heringova/Jaromír Janácek; music: Zdenek Liska; cast: Jozef Kroner (Tono Brtko), Ida Kaminska (Rozalie Lautmann), Hana Slivkova (Evelina Brtko), Frantisek Zvarik (Marcus Kolkotsky), Helena Zvarikov (Rose Kolkotsky), Martin Holly (Imro Kuchar), Martin Gregor (Katz), Adam Matejka (Piti Baci), Mikulas Ladzinsky (Marian Peter); Runtime: 128; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Jordan Balurov/M. Broz/K. Feix/Jaromír Lukás; The Criterion Collection; 1965-Czechoslovakia-in Czech with English subtitles)
“One of the more memorable films about the Holocaust.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The 1965 Oscar winner for Best Foreign Film was co-directed by Ján Kadár (a Budapest-born Slovak with Jewish roots–some of his family died in Auschwitz) and Elmar Klos (a Czech, who let Kadár direct almost the entire pic as he saw fit), and is one of the more memorable films about the Holocaust. It was the first Czech film nominated for such an honor and signaled the beginning of a Czech renaissance in film. It’s based on a story by Ladislav Grosman (a Czech with Jewish roots but who grew up in Slovakia), and is co-written by him and Kadár. The film is told in an endearing comical way, but ends up being a very touching sentimental story that is both mesmerizing and heart-breaking as it becomes more and more immersed in the evil events of its day.

It’s set in 1942 in a small-town in Slovakia controlled by the Nazis. A lowly, unambitious, weak-willed, apolitical, good-natured carpenter named Tono Brtko (Jozef Kroner) is saddled with a nagging wife named Evelina (Hana Slivkova), whose vulgar brother Marcus Kolkotsky (Frantisek Zvarik) has risen to be the local commander of the fascist guard. Tono refused to join the fascist guards and thinks by his indifference to them, he could avoid their evil reach. But his treacherous brother-in-law makes him the “Aryan controller” of a button shop on Main Street owned by a senile, hard-of-hearing widowed old Jewish woman named Mrs. Lautmann (Idá Kaminská), who is so out of it that she’s unaware that there’s a war on and that there’s trouble brewing on the outside for the Jews. Tono’s materialistic insensitive wife jumps for joy at this opportunity to become rich over someone else’s misfortune and welcomes Aryanisation as her saving grace to get ahead. This new position makes Tono see for himself what’s happening to the Jewish community, something he’s until now carefully avoided.

Warning: spoiler in the next paragraph.

At the shop, Tono’s dreams of wealth are soon shattered as he finds the old lady is nearly bankrupt and is supported by the local Jewish community. He also has trouble communicating with her, not even able to let her understand she doesn’t own the shop any more in the new Nazi world where the law forbids a Jew to own a business. Instead Tono is convinced by the local Jews to accept a generous salary in return for pretending to be Mrs. Lautmann’s new assistant. Even though they can’t communicate through words Tono begins to have an affection for the poor old ailing lady, but things suddenly change to one of horror as the fascist guards order all Jews deported to work camps. In the turmoil of the round-up, Mrs. Lautmann’s name is accidentally omitted from the list. But Tono doesn’t know this and is torn with trying to help her escape or to turn her in. He’s frightened of being accused of being a Jew-lover for helping her. His friend Kuchar (Martin Holly) was arrested and tortured and will soon be executed for being a Jew-lover, so the ordinary man’s fear is very real. In a drunken state of panic, as all the town Jews are herded together by the new wooden ‘tower of Babel’ monument near his Main Street shop at the town square, he tries to push Mrs. Lautmann out to the other Jews on the street but she begins to realize something bad is going down, which she calls a pogrom, and runs away. Trying to at least hide her, he pushes the frail woman into a cupboard. When the soldiers leave with the Jews, he finds her dead in the cupboard and is so overcome with guilt, confusion about his identity and despair that he hangs himself.

The film deals, at first, with the crisis in a lighthearted comical way, as it has fun with the tragicomic relationship of the carpenter with his bigoted ignorant family (the fascist showers his unfortunate relations with food and drink, while lording it over them that he’s a superior being) and with the elderly Jewess (their bonding relationship is the heart of the film). But things darken considerably fast when the cattle trains arrive for deportation and the sadness becomes so overwhelming that Tono can only try to escape from the soon to be tragic events through drink and a whitened dream sequence where he’s splendidly dressed and promenading down Main Street with his lover.

By studying the Holocaust through only a few people and not on a large scale, it puts on it a human face.

Through the magnificent performances of Kroner and Kaminska, a star in the Yiddish theater who was born in Odessa, the film reaches great heights by showing how the ordinary person gets caught up in the conflicts of his time and is stuck trying to make the right choices. The pathetic carpenter, a Christian who just wants to be left alone to play with his dog and work with wood, becomes so confused when things are out of his control, that he’s not sure at the end if he’s capable of doing the morally right thing or of even knowing his own identity.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”