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Friday, November 10, 2017
Ján Kadár and Elmar Klos | Obchod na korze (The Shop on Main Street)
neighbors become killers
by Douglas Messerli
Ladislav Grosman, Ján Kadár and Elmar Klos (screenplay, based on the story by Grosman), Ján Kadár and Elmar Klos (directors) Obchod na korze (The Shop on Main Street, previously titled The Shop on High Street) / 1965
Ján Kadár’s and Elmar Klos’ 1965 film The Shop on Main Street is a comedy that little by little morphs into a tragedy. Or perhaps one might describe it simply as a tragedy that nonetheless has comical elements. As Kadár himself put it: “Humor is not lacking in even the most tragic situations, but the viewer or reader knows that life is in the balance.”
The doltish carpenter at the center of this tale, "Tóno" Brtko (Jozef Kroner) is basically a good man whose wife and brother-in-law force to join them in the Nazi takeover of Jewish businesses, the Aryanization process that proceeded the arrest and deportation the Jews to concentration camps.
Tono basically likes his Jewish neighbors and hates his loutish brother-in-law Markuš Kolkotský (František Zvarík), who has become the small Slovak town’s Nazi-supporting commander. He has just ordered the construction of a bizarre-looking monument to the Slovak version of the Nazi Party in the town square, and as he reminds Tono and his wife, Evelína (Hana Slivková), he is financially well rewarded in his new position, bringing sausages, several bottles of liquor and much else to celebrate with them. After a heavy night of drinking, he offers Tono the job as Aryan overseer of a small Jewish button-store owner, Rozália Lautmannová (the wonderful Polish actress Ida Kamińska), evidently presuming that she has amassed great wealth which Tono and Evelina can now share as her overseer.
In fact, as Tono soon discovers, the elderly widow Rozália has no money, and survives only through the auspices of a Jewish charity group. He also discovers that the kindly button seller is so hard of hearing and unable to digest the facts of his “takeover” of her shop, that she welcomes him as a friend who has simply come to help her out. She soon offers him her dead husband’s suit and hat.
Without telling his wife, Tono returns to the shop each day to repair her broken furniture and keep her good company. The Jewish charity also now pay him just for his silence, and Tono, against his better judgment, accepts the funds. Indeed he becomes good friends with Mr. Katz, the local barber and Imrich Kuchár (Martin Hollý Sr.) in the process.
If nothing had changed, the situation between the two might have been a perfect solution. But, obviously, the center cannot hold, as the Jews are rounded up to be taken away. Tono desperately attempts to protect the uncomprehending
Rozália, realizing that he, too, is now in danger for being a Jew-lover, who are hated even more than the Jews themselves. Has his brother-in-law put him into the position simply to destroy him?
As her Jewish neighbors are called to be herded into trucks one-by-one, Tono pushes the confused old lady into a closet, hoping that she will not be discovered.
She is not called out to join the round-up, but when he goes to retrieve he discovers that she has died.
His guilt in her death can only be assuaged in one way, we perceive. Tono hangs himself.
Kadár has described his profound film as perhaps better representing the terrible events of 1942 than a large serious epic about the extermination of the Jews. What we realize throughout this film is that everyone in this provincial community is guilty, each in their own way.
The director used the real citizens of the small town of Sabinov, who, he observes, were remarkably ready and professional to act the roles of the citizens before them. Perhaps in re-telling this singular tale they felt they were helping to right the crimes so many of their relatives presumably had so awfully committed.
Los Angeles, November 10, 2017
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (November 2017).