Perhaps the most famous Slovakian film ever made, at least on an international level, Ján Kadár and Elmar Klos’s Obchod na korze (1965) aka The Shop on the High Street (also known as The Shop on the Main Street to American audiences) has long been lumped in with the Czech New Wave — more imaginative, surreal, and often darker-themed films made during the thaw in communist censorship in the ‘60s — but it is important to remember that this was largely a Slovakian production and was shot (and set) in a Slovakian village. While it certainly belongs to the tradition of other Czechoslovak WWII-themed films like Distant Journey (1949), The Boxer and Death (1962), Kadár and Klos’s earlier Death is Called Engelchen (1963), and The Cremator (1969), it’s necessary to make this distinction because of the somewhat unique participation of Slovakia not only in WWII, but particularly in the Holocaust.
In 1942, Tóno (Jozef Kroner), a carpenter who has had trouble finding work and is constantly nagged by his wife (Hana Slivkova), is given a surprise promotion from his high-ranking fascist brother-in-law (Markus Kolkocký): he’s ordered to take over a sewing shop owned by an elderly, Jewish widow, Mrs. Lautmannová (Ida Kamińska), as the local Jewish businesses are all being gifted to Aryan “protectors” as part of the Nazi policy of Aryanization. But she’s almost deaf and has no idea what has been going on in the world; a protective neighbor convinces her that Tóno is a distant relative who has come to serve as her assistant. Feeling sorry for her and won over by her naive sweetness, Tóno agrees to this ruse, even though he learns the shop isn’t profitable and his brother-in-law has (unintentionally?) duped him. The local Jewish council offers him a regular stipend to remain the old lady’s protector and as he stays on, he grows quite close to Mrs. Lautmannová. But to his horror, he learns that transport trains have arrived and a round up of the town’s Jews is imminent…
Shown at Cannes and the recipient of the 1965 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, The Shop on the High Street holds an interesting position in the annals of Holocaust cinema in the sense that it was one of the first significant films to break away from the themes, narrative pattern, and melodramatic tone established by Polish director and Holocaust survivor Wanda Jakubowska’s Ostatni etap (1948) aka The Last Stage, which would go on to influence the majority of subsequent Holocaust films, including such emotionally exploitative drivel as Schindler’s List (1993). In an appreciation of The Shop on the High Street included with Second Run’s Blu-ray release, writer Michael Brooke said, “It was one of the first internationally acclaimed films about the Holocaust and it’s praised to this day for avoiding many of the moral and ethical pitfalls that bedevil many other Holocaust films.”
Akin to Jakubowska — herself a survivor of Auschwitz and the women’s concentration camp Ravensbrück — Kadár was a survivor whose family died in Auschwitz. In an essay for the New York Herald Tribune, “The Shop on Main Street: Not the Six Million but the One,” Kadár wrote, “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.” He said that Klos, his longtime collaborator, gave him relative creative freedom for the film, which was based on a novel from Ladislaw Grosman (The Trap), who also wrote the script. Kadár wrote that the loose theme was “fascism from within” and — bucking the expectations of traditional Soviet cinema — he sought to make a film about the experience of an ordinary individual.
He wrote, “Ladislav Mnacko wrote in connection with the Eichmann trial that he found the key to understanding in the fate of the Jews he had known personally, not in the sum total of those indirectly killed by Eichmann… The most perfect reconstruction of a situation—and this brings us to The Shop on Main Street—cannot outdo a picture of fascism concentrated in the tragedy of a single human being.” Tóno is an absurd, even comic figure with a tolerable, if seemingly unsatisfying life, but he is at the center of the film’s themes of greed and opportunism. Unlike many other European nations who suffered under Nazi occupation, Slovakia was a technically independent, though satellite state (much like Croatia). Part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire for centuries and then part of Czechoslovakia thanks to the redrawing of borders in 1918 as a result of WWI, it is likely that the nation’s desire for independence — and the prominence of fascist factions within the country, like the Hlinka guard — led to this bargain with the Nazis. Though not required to, they participated in the Nazi invasion of Poland that led to the start of WWII and later, the invasion of the Soviet Union.
The Shop on the High Street, then, is concerned directly with this issue of willing collaboration and the enthusiasm of local populations to participate in anti-Semitism violence at worst and opportunism at best. A character in the film references a German saying, “Feed the wolf and keep the sheep,” and many of the film’s characters, including Tóno’s wife, are either unable or unwilling to see the evil they are contributing to because of a sense of greed and entitlement. The “us versus them” mentality includes the notion that “A Jew lover is worse than a Jew,” as if empathy is the ultimate crime in this universe. Tóno’s fundamental decency drives him to madness and (some very unexpected) violence and the downbeat ending flies in the face of communist cinematic conventions.
For Kinokultura, Martin Votruba wrote, “The Communist government… saw film as an important medium to indoctrinate the population and—under strict ideological control — financed film production in the Slovak, as well as in the Czech part of the country.” He continued, “The authorities mandated that the method used in all art be socialist realism… The topics were to emphasize the need to work for the good of ‘the collective’—that is, communist society. Topics focusing on the individual and his or her personal feelings and concerns were deemed harmful, as was depicting anything negative about society.” Tóno’s community is not necessarily a fundamentally poisoned, corrupt place — there are several non-Jews who are sympathetic to Mrs. Lautmannová and their other neighbors — but none who are willing to act, save Tóno and (no spoilers) his actions come with what could generously be described as mixed results.
The heart of the film lies in the two lead performances from Jozef Kroner and Polish actress Ida Kamińska. One of the most brilliant things about the film is its subtlety and its comedy, traits not typically found in the scores of hyper-moralistic, tediously serious WWII-themed films released in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe during the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s. Kroner portrays Tóno as a fundamentally decent, if somewhat absurd, even flawed everyman; and the film’s tragedy is that these good intentions are nowhere near enough to confront such consuming evil. But Kadár and Klos issue a challenge that such actions are necessary even if they are guaranteed to fail. It’s impossible to fathom that any individual could focus on the rewards of local prosperity — as symbolized by the gradually growing wooden tower, a monument to the lure of fascism — when confronted with the look on Mrs. Lautmannová’s face when she finally understands what is happening in her town. She asks, “Am I going mad or has the world gone mad?” And in a devastating moment mumbles a word that speaks to not only WWII-era anti-Semitism, but to the historical plight of Jews in Eastern Europe: pogrom.
UK label Second Run have made a name for themselves releasing international, but particularly Eastern and Central European arthouse films and The Shop on the High Street is a continuation of that fine work. Kadár and Klos’s film makes its Blu-ray debut with a new high definition transfer (from the Czech National Film Archive) and includes two essential special features: a lengthy “appreciation” — really more like a documentary feature on the film, its directors, and its uniquely Slovakian themes — from Michael Brooke (respect to that flamingo wallpaper), as well as a booklet with a lengthy essay from writer and historian Peter Hames, who has long been one of the key voices in Eastern European film criticism. Also included is the original press kit and a new subtitle translation, making this a worthy and welcome release for such an important film. In terms of Holocaust cinema, it remains a vital work — one that you should seek out immediately — particularly considering that both Hollywood and European studios continue to mine the themes of WWII and the Holocaust with predictably abysmal results, despite the unnerving modern political parallels.