The Shop on Main Street
Directors: Ján Kadár and Elmar Klos
Distributed by: The Criterion Collection (in U.S.)
Released: October 1965
Goals are important. But sometimes it’s okay to go about your life without much ambition, existing day-to-day, enjoying what you do with a live-and-let-live attitude. That’s how Anton Brtko, or Tóno as he is called, would prefer to have things, in The Shop on Main Street, the Czechoslovakian winner of the 1965 Best Foreign Film award. He’s a good-natured carpenter who is willing to do the minimum amount of work and go home and soak his feet in the kitchen. The problem is, his wife Evelina, has other ideas. She is his Lady MacBeth, urging him to do more when he would rather stay content with what he has. She sees that her sister is married to the town commander, Markuš, and she wants her husband to have similar ambitions.
The thing is, Markuš is the town commander in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia, so his true identity is that of collaborator. When the Nazis occupy your country, you have two choices: go along with it or get crushed. Markuš has chosen the former; Tóno would just as soon ignore the whole situation. Markuš is a total blowhard, but he is able to secure Tóno an opportunity to move up in the world, and
there is no way Evelina is going to allow him to
refuse that opportunity. Markuš has
arranged it so that Tóno will be able to take over a little sewing shop—all he
has to do is walk in and start running the place.
|Tono and his Lady MacBeth, Evelina|
That may seem a bit odd, but this is part of the Nazis’ Aryanization program—in other words, the shop on Main Street already has an owner—a Jewish one—who by law has to give up ownership to a non-Jew. When Tóno goes in on his first day, he is surprised to learn that the store is run by a kind old widow named Rozália. Rozália is sort of deaf and slightly senile and never quite grasps the fact that Tóno is there to take the place away from her, not become her assistant. Tóno, kind-hearted man that he is, allows her to think she is still running things, and the two of them soon form an odd but sweet friendship.
The Shop on Main Street is part of the Czechoslovak New Wave of the 1960’s, like Closely Watched Trains, 1967’s Best Foreign Film winner, though unlike most films in this movement, which were Czech, it was largely a Slovak production. It ends up being a mostly dark film, yet is genuinely funny at times. Jozef Kroner plays Tóno as incredibly likeable, and Tóno’s relationship with Rozália is unusual yet strangely romantic in a way. She is the lovely woman that his wife is not. Polish actress Ida Kamińska’s performance as Rozália is engaging and heartbreaking.
|Tono and Rozalia|
The way the mood turned in this movie snuck up on me—at first, it seemed almost to be a comedy, with broad characters and amusing situations, like Italy’s Life is Beautiful. But as the story unfolds, we remember that a main character is a Jewish woman in the Holocaust era, and that makes this film a tragedy. And The Shop on the Corner shows us an Aryan man who just wanted to live his life the way he wanted to, but inevitably is destined to become part of that tragedy.
The Title: Obchod na korze. The title may sound like, but is nothing like, Ernst Lubitsch’s 1940 comedy The Shop Around the Corner, set in Hungary. If you haven’t checked that one out, you should!
The culture: Director Ján Kadár actually was a professor in Prague, and taught many of the directors of the New Czechoslovak movement. There are a number of Best Foreign Films (nine, by my count) that deal with the Holocaust in some way, and this one is among the most moving. Especially emotional is the film’s final act, with the inevitably tragic ending, yet with optimism ultimately winning out in the end.
Agenda danger: The film was funded by the Communist government, but they didn’t like Nazis anymore than anyone else did.
|"Go ahead, blow your whistle, I dare you."|
Best Picture that year: The Sound of Music. Another film about the Nazis, sort of. This is completely off topic, but I always thought one of the most bone-headed moves in all of cinema was when Christopher Plummer goads Rolfe into blowing his whistle by telling him, “You’ll never be one of them.” A karate chop to Rolfe’s neck would probably have been the smarter move.
Rating: This movie drew me in more and more as the story moved along. It allows you to really get to know the characters so that you really begin to hope that what you think will happen won’t. But in the end, I didn’t feel bad about the inevitable tragedy because the important thing is that these two characters found each other and established a true friendship despite of it.