Thursday, August 8, 2013

FI: The Shop on Main Street

The Shop on Main Street / Obchod na korze
Czechoslovakia, 1965
Directed and co-written by Ján Kadár

In America, central Europe remains a forgotten front as far as media representation of World War II goes. If it's not the Battle of Britain, Dunkirk, occupied Paris, D-Day, or some tale of US liberation, odds are we haven't learned much about it in schools or seen it on our screens. That's just one of the things that makes Ján Kadár's The Shop on Main Street remarkable. Produced in the then-Soviet former Czechoslovakia, the film depicts the Nazi occupation of the Slovak state not so much as a foreign power conquering from without, but as a corruption of collusion destroying a small town from within. The "bad guys" aren't Germans, but ambitious, power-seeking Slovaks, which makes it easy for the town's citizens to write them off. But like a cancer, they are a problem ignored at one's own peril.

Our focus in the story is Tóno (Jozef Kroner), a work-a-day carpenter struggling under the new Fascist regime, a regime he doesn't agree with or expect to last. He's henpecked by his wife (Hana Slivková) and condescended to by his brother-in-law Kolkotský (František Zvarík), whose collaboration has led to a promotion to Town Commander. Under the regime's Aryanization policy, Kolkotský assigns Tóno to work as the Aryan manager of one of the town's Jewish shops, run by the elderly widow Lautmannová (Ida Kamińska). Through Tóno's relationship with her (and the underground Jewish organization that supports her shop), the film examines how even a culture integrated with and largely indifferent to the Jews could find itself swept up in creeping Nazism without grasping its ramifications until far too late.

Kadár performs something like a magic act in the way he subtly plays with and shifts The Shop on Main Street's tone. Tóno, perpetually accompanied by his faithful dog Essenc, is presented to us as the comic archetype of the browbeaten, underachieving husband. His sarcasm, boozing, and self-justification are comedic indicators, and Kroner plays the character with aplomb. While Zdeněk Liška's score lampoons nationalistic pride with repeated, triumphal refrains, it also strikes discordant, eerie notes throughout. Slowly, the film shifts registers until its tone matches the score, and (much like the Slovak village Main Street depicts), we come to realize too late that what we thought was a comedy was, in fact, the darkest of tragedies all along.

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