The Shop on Main Street (1965), directed by Jan Kadar and Elmar Klos (but the film seems to be basically the work of Kadar) is often listed among the films of the Czech New Wave. But this is a bit misleading, and not just because the film is Slovak rather than Czech. Kadar and Klos were nearly a generation older than the New Wave directors, and had been making films all through the 1950s. (I haven’t seen any of this earlier work; none of it seems to be available in the US. Although online accounts credit at least one of their Fifties films as being mildly dissident, they would have had to conform to the censorship pressures then in place). Kadar and Klos undoubtedly benefited from the cultural liberalization of the early 1960s; but their filmmaking style remains more traditional, or classical, than that of the New Wave directors. Also, The Shop on Main Street deals with fascist Slovakia during World War II. (Rather than being directly occupied by the Nazis, Slovakia was placed under the homegrown Fascist regime of Jozef Tiso). Because it is thus set in the pre-Communist era, the film doesn’t challenge the Party line, or the official view of history, in any way (as far as I can tell); it was spared the political difficulties faced by many of the New Wave films. (It also won the US Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 1965, as the more innovative Closely Watched Trains did two years later. For Hollywood, as much as for the Communist governments of Eastern Europe before 1989, the War and the Holocaust are ‘safer’ subjects than any more recent historical or political engagement).
I don’t mean for these comments to have a snarky tone; I am just trying to place the film. The Shop on Main Street is a powerful and affecting movie, and one that compares favorably with certain more recent cinematic treatments, from East or West, of World War II and the Holocaust. The film is set in 1942, in a small town in rural Slovakia, during the time of the deportation of the Jews to Auschwitz and other Nazi concentration camps. (According to Wikipedia, Jews were deported from Slovakia from March 1942 until October 1942, at which time the Slovaks rejected German pressure to deport anyone more. Some more Jews were deported two years later, after Nazi troops occupied Slovakia in 1944. See the article here and the discussion here).
The protagonist Tono (Jozef Kroner) is an amiable and good-hearted everyman figure. He’s a carpenter. His closest emotional tie seems to be to his dog. He is continually being browbeaten and nagged at by his wife; he is also bullied by the wife’s sister’s husband, who is the local Fascist leader. Liike most of the other townspeople we meet in the course of the film, he doesn’t much like the Fascists, but also, prudently, doesn’t do anything overtly to oppose them. The film entirely downplays the issue of any sort of collaboration by the general Slovak population with the local Fascists and with the Nazis; though it also downplays any sort of active resistance or partisan activity, such as led to the Slovak National Uprising in 1944. Instead, Tono is a man in the middle, with decent impulses but no real understanding of politics beyond the sphere of his own personal life.
The Fascist brother-in-law appoints Tono as the “Aryan overseer” — i.e. the new owner, enabled to take over — of a “Jewish business,” a notions shop (selling buttons and such). Tono and his wife imagine that this will make them rich. But it turns out that the shop is owned by a senile old Jewish lady, Mrs. Lautmann (Ida Kaminska), who is poor, cannot make a living from her business, and subsists on charity from the Jewish community. She cannot understand that Tono has been appointed to take over her shop, and thinks instead that he has come to be a shop assistant, and help her. But Tono doesn’t really understand the way things are much better: he has no sense of what is really entailed by his new position, and no overall grasp of the monstrousness of what is going on all around him.
In the course of things, Tono becomes quite fond of Mrs. Lautmann. He finds himself in a strange double role: simultaneously working for the Fascists in their effort to de-Judaize the town, and for the Jewish community, which pays him to take care of Mrs. Lautmann. There are lots of semi-comic scenes — some brilliantly played, and some a bit corny — illustrating the foibies of the townspeople, and the growth of the relationship betwen Tono and Mrs. Lautmann.
Eventually, things come to a head, as the Fascists order the deportation of all the town’s Jews (to Auschwitz, we presume, though the Jews themselves are just told that they will be put to work). Tono, once again, doesn’t really understand what this means. He is torn between at leat three contradictory impulses: 1)a desire to save Mrs. Lautmann, perhaps by hiding her, 2)a fatalistic feeling that it doesn’t really matter, that there is nothing one can do anyway, and that the deportation won’t be all that bad, and 3)a fear that if he helps Mrs. Lautmann, or even just fails to turn her over to the authorities, he will be beaten, tortured, and imprisoned as a “Jew-lover,” as has already happened to another Christian character earlier in the film.
The most brilliant thing in the film is a long sequence near the end, where Tono seems to hold all these three positions nearly simultaneously. He’s in the shop, looking out at the central square where the Jews (all of them in the town, except for Mrs. Lautmann) are being assembled and taken away. As Tono, in his confusion and despair, gets drunker and drunker, he wildly fluctuates from one attitude to the next, at one moment trying to push the bewildered Mrs. Lautmann out into the square, at the next, locking her into a closet so she will not be found. It’s essentially just Jozef Kroner as Tono and the camera; and Tono gives an astonishing bravura performance, a display of hysteria that works powerfully not in spite of, but precisely because of, the fact that we are aware throughout of the actor behind the character, of the way in which this extended outburst is being performed or enacted.
The only other film performance to which I can compare Kroner’s tour de force is James Stewart’s filibuster in the US Senate at the end of Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Both of these performances are brilliant displays of actorly hysteria; both display a bodily intelligence on the part of the actor which exceeds the capacities of the character, but thereby manifests the personal and social) forces that inhabit that character. The difference, of course, is that, in Capra’s film, Stewart’s character’s basic goodness shines through, and good triumphs over evil; while in Kadar’s film, Kroner’s character is ultimately impotent. For all of Kroner’s performative range, and rage, Tono can do nothing against the horrors of history, which he is never able to grasp or comprehend. The film ends with his suicide, after Mrs. Lautmann’s death. The final scene, though, is a nostalgic fantasy: we see Tono and Mrs. Lautmann, dressed in the finery of an earlier (pre-War and pre-Fascist) age, stroll peacefully together through the streets, the hazy, blurry lighting indicating clearly that such an ending is entirely wishful and counterfactual.
Cinematic depictions of the Holocaust are problematic, for two logically opposed, yet both entirely cogent, reasons. On the one hand, the horror of the event is banalized by any effort to represent it, which means to make it commensurate with other events. Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah is the only film I know of that properly directs our attention to the unrepresentability of the Holocaust as its subject matter. On the other hand, and at the same time, the Holocaust gets bandied about, precisely in its excess and incommensurability, as a token of high seriousness and good faith, and as a weapon to silence other concerns and other discourses. Holocaust films win Oscars, precisely because the subject matter itself is used to deflect any questions about aesthetic value and artistic integrity. Think Schindler’s List, Life is Beautiful, or even The Pianist. In fact, it strikes me that Spielberg exhibits both of these tendencies simultaneously; at the same time that Schindler’s List relentlessly and aggressively banalized the Holocaust — is there any more egregious scene in all of Hollywood filmmaking than the one where the Jews, having been shipped to Auschwitz, are sent into an ominous-looking building to take showers, only for us (the viewers) to discover that these are not gas chambers… but actual showers? — the film also claims a moral authority from its subject matter, that preempts all criticism in advance. The result is that Schindler’s List turns the Holocaust into a redemptive fable. To my mind, this is beyond all bounds of basic human decency. I don’t find it indecent or offensive or even shocking when Mel Brooks turns Nazism into a subject for crass comedy; I am not offended by the Nazi s&m chic of films like Liliana Cavani’s The Night Porter; but Spielberg’s turning the Holocaust into an allegory of redemption is perhaps the one thing that I do find utterly offensive without appeal (sort of what the Christians call the one unpardonable sin, the “sin against the Holy Spirit”).
In this respect, I think that Jan Kadar comes across, some 28 years before Schindler’s List, as the anti-Spielberg. Tono is arguably as decent a figure as Schindler, but without the latter’s superhuman powers. His good heart and good intentions are simply not enough, when arrayed against the monstrous forces of Fascism and Nazism. (The same could apply to Stalinism, or Maoism, or American slavery, or the many other horrors of the last several hundred years). The Shop on Main Street reminds us — and this is a reminder that Americans seem to need, more than Europeans — that a good conscience, and a basic human decency, are not enough to save us. Human beings indeed “make their own history, but –” as Marx goes on to say, “they do not make it just as they please.”