Revisiting old classics, discovering hidden gems and exploring the contemporary movie scene: every month, Kafkadesk’s CineClub brings you new insights and expert film reviews of the greatest treasures of Central European cinema. This week: The Shop on Main Street (Obchod na korze, 1965), by Ján Kadár and Elmar Klos.
“Of all my films, The Shop on Main Street touches me most closely. Elmar Klos and I usually work as equal partners, but in this case he left me a free hand. He knows that I am not thinking of the fate of all the six million tortured Jews, but that my work is shaped by the fate of my father, my friends’ fathers, mothers of those near to me and by people whom I have known. I am not interested in the outer trappings—figures, statements, generalizations. I want to make emotive films…” – Ján Kadár, New York Herald Tribune, Jan 23 1966
With any major catastrophe resulting in the loss of human life it is often difficult to comprehend the numbers. Sometimes incidental details can help visualize the size of the tragedy. After I first watched The Shop on Main Street and sat pondering Kadár’s quote, the official coronavirus death toll in the UK had just passed 30,000. That’s roughly a capacity crowd at Portman Road in Ipswich, where I was a season ticket holder for ten years. So I only had to imagine a packed stadium silenced forever to get to grips with the scale of the public health disaster/scandal in my country.
But six million? A quick Google search shows that it is approximately the entire population of Turkmenistan, which doesn’t really help get my head around the vastness of the Holocaust. It’s easy to feel numbed by such numbers. That is the brilliance of The Shop on Main Street – it narrows the focus to two individuals and makes us personally involved in the horror of their circumstances. The 56-year-old Academy Award winner hit me hard, feeling as fresh and vital as any other film I’ve seen about the Holocaust in recent years.
The Shop on Main Street wears its flawed greatness lightly, starting with a comedic tone and growing darker, building a sense of dread until its harrowing conclusion. And then… spoilers ahead: I’ll talk about that ending later.
A growing sense of dread
The story begins in 1942 in a small town in Slovakia. A separate Slovak state has been established in the wake of the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, and president Jozef Tiso has quickly fallen in line with the Nazi’s race laws. One of the regulations is the policy of “Aryanization”, kicking Jewish business owners out and transferring their property into “Aryan” hands to “de-Jew the economy”.
Despite this, all appears well. It’s a bright sunny day, a band is playing cheerful oom-pah-pah music in the park, and the townsfolk are enjoying a stroll in the fine weather. However, there are rumours that serious trouble is coming for the town’s Jewish community.
We meet Tóno Brtko (Jozef Kroner), a modest carpenter and his nagging wife Evelina (Hana Slivková). Tóno is a classic Everyman character, a regular guy who just wants to be left alone, but is constantly getting it in the neck from his other half for not making enough money.
One evening they receive a visit from Evelina’s sister Ružena (Elena Pappová-Zvaríková) and her husband Markus (František Zvarík), who is town commander under the Nazis and enjoying all the power and wealth that come with the role. Tóno is resentful of his brother-in-law after some previous family squabbles, but after showering them with food and expensive presents, Markus has another gift for the carpenter. He has assigned him as the “Aryan Controller” of a small button shop on the main square, currently owned by an elderly Jewish widow, Mrs Lautmannová (Ida Kamińska in a heartbreaking performance).
Turns out the business is a bust because all the good Jewish businesses have already been handed out, and the near-senile Mrs Lautmannová is unwittingly getting by on handouts from the Jewish community. Nevertheless, Tóno makes out to his materialistic wife that things are going well, and he is offered a decent wage from Mrs Lautmannová’s benefactors to sit tight and look after her.
Initially frustrated by his inability to communicate with her, Tóno soon develops a bond with the old lady. He finds refuge from his overbearing wife at the shop and enjoys being mothered. She enjoys the company and he likes pottering about the place, fixing up her antique furniture. Mrs Lautmannová is completely oblivious to the ominous signs around her, even with Markus overseeing the construction of a nationalistic “Tower of Victory” right outside her shop.
“Aryanisation” in war-time Slovakia
The film is divided into roughly two halves. The first establishes the town and a small group of characters, played well by a memorable cast of mostly Slovak actors. There are small clues that things aren’t as rosy under the new rule – prices are going up, unpaid taxes are demanded under threat of severe punishment – and a chill sense of dread grows, despite the overall lightness of tone.
Around the halfway mark the mood shifts as the local authorities begin deporting the Jewish community. Tóno is still trying to do the right thing and help Mrs Lautmannová, opening the shop on the sabbath against her wishes to avoid drawing attention. Despite his best intentions, he is increasingly afraid of getting caught and punished as a “Jew-lover” like his friend Mr Kuchár (Martin Hollý Sr.), a member of the resistance.
Eventually, the pressure grows too much for Tóno. In a cruel twist of fate, when he and Mrs Lautmannová are offered a chance of reprieve by a Nazi admin error, he’s too frightened and lacking the presence of mind to take advantage of it. This last stretch is played out almost like a suspense thriller, with the roll call of Jewish family names on the town loudspeakers acting like a ticking clock towards the discovery of the amiable old lady.
The first time around I was on the edge of my seat, feeling a little bad about enjoying the film so much – I guess that’s why it is so powerful. It doesn’t batter you over the head with gruelling horrors like, say, Son of Saul. It delivers its message in a really enjoyable cinematic package and it is all the more effective for it.
By the conclusion, when the drunk, panicking Tóno is hiding in the shop with an anguished Mrs Lautmannová, the film has taken on a noirish visual style, with expressionistic lightning giving a ghoulish cast to the carpenter’s hangdog face. While we fear for Mrs Lautmannová’s life, one of the film’s harshest lessons is how the threat of reprisal has such a damaging psychological effect, turning an otherwise decent man into someone capable of sending a helpless old lady to her death to save his skin.
Then, just as it looks like Kadár & Klos are going to stick the landing…
A misjudged ending
Remember the SPOILER ALERT?
Tóno has accidentally killed Mrs Lautmannová trying to keep her quiet, and, stricken with guilt, hangs himself. He closes the store and strings himself up from a hook in the ceiling. Then… the doors of the shop open, a heavenly light shines in. Our deceased protagonists, dressed to the nines, dance away down the street to some jaunty brass band music.
There is already a perfect end to this film a scene or two earlier: as Tóno closes the shop and walks away to commit suicide, we’re left with an evocative, simple shot of sunlight shining through cracks in the shutters. That’s it – leave it there.
The idea of hanging was already established earlier in the film when Tóno notices some string dangling from a beam in his garden, and we’ve already seen him looking up at the hook in the ceiling after he realises that he has killed the old lady. That should be enough, but instead, the director tacks on that weirdly feel-good ending.
It would have been mawkish but maybe that ending would work if the story had them, say, gunned down while trying to escape and Tóno had attempted to shield her. But the dream sequence is so completely at odds with how their relationship ended: Mrs Lautmannová dying in a closet, bewildered, scared and betrayed, and Tóno so ashamed that has no choice but to end his own life. The dancing-down-the-street ending diminishes the power of an otherwise devastating conclusion, and lets Tóno – and the audience – off the hook.
I sat on it for a week and watched the film again before writing this article in case the ending played better the second time around, but it didn’t. The Shop on Main Street is an almost perfect film, let down by a severely misjudged ending. It is still a strong recommendation and, as it’s becoming depressingly repetitive when reviewing films of this nature, it is still extremely relevant today. As Kadár states later in the same New York Herald Tribune article: “For the lot of the Jews one can substitute the lot of anyone in this world.”
By Lee Adams
Lee is a writer and film critic living in Brno, Czech Republic. He studied film at university but dropped out halfway through because his tutor was always skiving off. He spent the next two decades using his half-education to passionately consume and write about movies. He has written for several outlets across the web, including the late-lamented Way Too Indie. In 2018 he founded Czech Film Review, approaching the cinema of his adopted home country from the perspective of a knowledgeable outsider.