The Shop on Main Street
English Title: The Shop on Main Street
Original Title: Obchod na korze
Country of Origin: Slovakia
Studio: Filmové Studio Barrandov
Cinematographer: Vladimír Novotný
Runtime: 128 minutes
Genre: Psychological drama/War
Volume: East European
In a small town in Slovakia during World War II, Tono Brtko, a joiner, lives a meagre existence until he is offered the chance to take over the haberdashery shop that is about to be taken away from the elderly Jewish widow Mrs Lautmann. Tono’s nationalist brother-in-law, who once cheated him out of an inheritance and is now acting town commander, is behind the appointment, which Brtko accepts in the hope of improving his family’s finances. He soon finds that the shop operates at a loss, underwritten by the well-to-do Jews for charitable reasons; but Mrs Lautmann’s sponsors offer Brtko financial support in exchange for his pretending in front of her that he is the old woman’s shop assistant, not expropriator, as she is too old to understand the situation. Brtko agrees, and even develops a genuinely cordial relationship with Mrs Lautmann. When the town’s Jewish community is summoned for deportation Mrs Lautmann is apparently forgotten, and Brtko faces a dilemma - whether to turn the old lady in to the authorities or to hide her.
Ján Kadár and Elmar Klos co-directed films since the early 1950s (the former was mostly responsible for working with actors, while the latter supervised the production design, the cinematography, the soundtrack and the editing). Between 1952 and 1969, they made eight motion pictures together, including the musical comedy Hudba z Marsu/Music from Mars (1955) and the social satire Tři přání/Three Wishes (1958), which were both deemed too controversial in communist Czechoslovakia and temporarily withdrawn from circulation. Obchod na korze/The Shop on Main Street was Kadár and Klos’s penultimate and most successful collaboration. In addition to many domestic and international prizes, it won an Academy Award in 1966 for the Best Foreign Language Film – the first of only two Czechoslovak Oscars (the other being for Jirí Menzel’s Ostře sledované vlaky/Closely Observed Trains  the following year).
The film is based on a novella by Ladislav Grosman, which deals with the plight of Jews in an unnamed Slovak town during the first Slovak republic (1939 - 45), an ally of Nazi Germany. As a result of the so-called Aryanization, Jews have their businesses seized and transferred to non-Jewish managers, and later the Jewish populace is deported to labour camps, with only a tiny minority (mostly children) hidden by the locals. The psychological quandary of turning over to or hiding Jews from the authorities is at the very heart of The Shop on Main Street, and was known to many ordinary Slovaks at the time. It is depicted with profound insight owing to the fact that two of the three key figures responsible for this film adaptation - Grosman (who co-wrote the script) and Kadár - were Slovakian Jews, directly affected by anti-Semitic persecution during World War II. On the one hand, the film unequivocally links racial prejudice to human greed. On the other, it shows that even in the worst of times an unlikely companionship could result in symbiotic harmony, at least up to a point. Brtko’s comically sudden (albeit partial) self-identification with the Jews is reflected in the scenes when he piously greets a rabbi the way he previously greeted a Catholic priest, and when he tries on a bowler hat (Mrs Lautmann’s gift) in front of a mirror, saying ‘I look like Charlie Chaplin’. In the film’s concluding scene, the imaginary dance of Mrs Lautmann and Brtko outside their shop provides a fanciful alternative to the story’s predictably catastrophic denouement.
Both leading actors excel in demanding scenes: for example, when the reality finally dawns on Mrs Lautmann as she witnesses the roundup of her fellow Jews through her shop window, and when Brtko hesitates over his decision whether to save Mrs Lautmann or his own skin. A suitably disturbing, discordant soundtrack by Zdeněk Liška, which underpins the chief characters’ emotional anxiety and dark forebodings in contrast to the cheerful Slovak folk songs and patriotic marches heard elsewhere, also deserves special mention as a key component of the film’s style and meaning.
A fine example of Czecho-Slovak collaboration – with the picturesque town of Sabinov in north-eastern Slovakia used for location filming and the Slovak dialogue written specially for the predominantly Slovak cast – The Shop on Main Street was shelved during the period of the so-called ‘normalisation’, during which time Grosman left for Israel, Kadár emigrated to the USA and Klos was forced into early retirement.
Author of this review: Andrei Rogatchevski