Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, Best Actress in a Leading Role Oscar Nomination (Ida Kaminska), Cannes Film Festival Special Mention Winner
Jan Kadar and Elmar Klos’ film deservedly won the Best Foreign Film Oscar for this brilliantly powerful drama of a Nazi occupied town in Slovakia in 1942.
Neither graphic nor action-oriented, The Shop on Main Street is a deceptively simple drama about a banal everyman, carpenter Tono (Jozef Kroner) who just wants to live fair and square but is put in an awkward situation when the Aryanization program is put into effect, and he’s assigned ‘Aryan manager’ for a Jewish business – a mid-level stage designed to rob Jews of their livelihood before branding them, and packing them off in trains bound for the death camps.
Ladislav Grosman’s script (his only film effort) could’ve been a paint-by-numbers drama showing injustice in stark black & white, but he and the two directors chose to walk a fine balance of drama and sly absurdism, and for the first half Shop plays like a twisted comedy. Tono’s wife Evelyna (Hana Slivkova) is a nagging bitch, and her brother Markus (Frantisek Zvarík) cheated him of the family farm, and a spot on the construction of a pyramid-like triumph being erected in the town square, celebrating the succession of Aryan Slovaks over all other races, creeds, and political persuasions. Markus is also the town’s chief Nazi officer, making him a repulsive fascist.
Neither a bounty of meat, wine and cheese nor multiple toasts can convince Tono that Markus is anything less than a scoundrel, but things seem to change when he gives Tono an official decree in which he’s been handed the local button shop owned and operated by the widow Ms. Lautmann (Ida Kaminska). Perfectly happy to be a carpenter, he reluctantly dresses up and heads over to the shop under pressure from his greedy wife, and finds he can’t take over the shop because Ms. Lautmann is hard of hearing, a smidge senile, and suffers from poor eyesight – making it impossible for Tono to explain she’s been officially demoted to an employee and no longer owns her shop.
A local businessman, Kuchar (Martin Holly), realizes there’s an advantage to Tono’s inability to be a bully and evict an old woman, so he sets him up as a front-man, and Tono’s paid a stipend by similarly-affected Jewish businessmen to pretend to formally run the shop.
This is fine with Tono, and while his idiot wife believes he’s slave-driving septuagenarian Ms. Lautmann into selling more buttons, he’s really in the back, restoring her old furniture because ‘he likes to fix things.’ Tono also strikes a friendship with a neighbour’s Jewish son, and things run absurdly smooth until friends pass on disturbing information about large empty cattle cars waiting at the train station, and a Saturday morning purge of Jews.
The unexpected friendship between grumbly alcoholic Tono and “old hag” Lautmann is put to the test when he realizes he’s been tested by brother-in-law Markus: he must either convince Ms. Lautmann to join the other Jews in the town square for the train ride to oblivion, or save her and risk his own life under fresh Nazi decrees. The film’s final quarter is an unbearably tense sequence where Tono struggles with his inability to make a decision and avert the maximum tragic outcome for all.
Woven into the scenes are sly jabs at the town’s fascist heads (a pompous waltz is replayed to maximum comedic effect in the opening credits and a Sunday afternoon stroll), not to mention Tono looking equally absurd as he tries to dress up and fit in with Markus’ clique, but Tono isn’t ridiculed by the filmmakers; he’s just a marker audiences can follow as small changes give way to larger injustices before the Nazi horrors come to fruition.
For contemporary audiences, the direction is remarkable for trusting the audience’s intelligence. Kadar and Klos know there’s little need to single out the obvious, which is why the wearing of the Star of David on clothes is never seen in close-ups nor highlighted in its own scene; and Kuchar’s arrest is reduced to three simple shots and Tono’s own anguished visage.
Instead of a black & white cartoon villain, Markus is shown as a lively, loud-mouth who happens to be a racist fascist; we can easily grasp why he’s advanced to his esteemed position and plans to stay there for a cozy eternity.
There’s also some striking similarities between in the tonal shading of drama and absurdism with Stanley Kubrick’s own critiques of war and social ills, and the erection of a ridiculous pine pyramid that evokes the giant flower heads celebrating the pompous fascism in Frederico Fellini’s Amarcord (1974). Like Fellini’s drama, Shop also focuses on a group of townspeople and the effects of fascism on its populace, but Kadar and Klos clearly wanted to dramatize how the Nazis’ arrival and pitched nationalism warped a select few who gravitated to advantageous power positions and instigated ethnic cleansing – actions that have yet to date, regardless of whatever war or unrest is in play.
Criterion’s DVD sports a crisp transfer but the subtitles are sometimes a bit inconsistent (although they do try to keep up with the sometimes rapid-fire dialogue). The only extras is an English-language trailer, making this film ripe for a new Blu-ray and extras to elaborate on the film’s production & its high-caliber talent.
Stage actress Kaminska appeared in just a handful of films, (including a small part in Border Street), and her last was The Angel Levine (1970), directed by Kadar after he left for North America to start a solo career when production on Adrift (in which Kroner had a small role) was put on hold due to the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.
Kadar’s major works include Katka (1949) and Lies My Father Told Me [M] (1975), and with Elmar Kloss, Kidnapped (1953), Music from Mars (1955), At the Terminus (1957), Tri prání (1958), Smrt si rika Engelchen (1963), Obzalovany (1965), and Adrift [M] (1971).
Juraj Hertz, who served as first assistant director (and has a small role in Shop) would later revisit the controversial subject of the Germanization of the Sudetanland in Habermann (2010).
© 2012 Mark R. Hasan