July 10, 2013 by abbyo
The further I explore the Czech New Wave, the more it seems to me that the Czech people must have been continuously angry during the entire Soviet occupation. Think about it: you’ve got a population of creative, smart people living under a regime that didn’t allow them the freedom to think, and didn’t give them much artistic license, either. And clearly, these are people for whom the word “compromise” was not an option—their best artistic output in literature, cinema and visual art shows constant fighting against the system, and damn the consequences. These folks weren’t happy, and they wanted people to know it.
Jan Kadar and Elmar Klos’ film “The Shop On Main Street” is about the Nazis, not the Soviets. But the fascist leaders who run the town and the residents who are ambivalent about it until it’s too late are a thinly-veiled metaphor. Kadar and Klos are expressing their lack of sympathy for anyone who’s cowardly enough to remain complicit in the face of a totalitarian regime. The film was made during the height of Soviet oppression in Czechoslovakia, and you’d have to be blind not to see the parallels.
The film’s central character is Antony Brtko, a hapless farmer with a failing farm and a nagging wife. His brother-in-law, Mark, is an officer in the Nazi-backed fascist administration running the town. Tony gets a big break when he’s appointed the “Aryan Controller” of a button shop run by a Jewish widow, Mrs. Lautmann. The slightly addled Mrs. Lautmann doesn’t get that Tony is there to take over her store, and treats him like an assistant. Tony becomes close with Mrs. Lautmann and her neighbors, until all the Jews in town are rounded up and shipped out, leaving Tony conflicted. Should he save Mrs. Lautmann, or give her up and save himself?
There’s initially plenty of humor in Kadar and Klos’ film. The relationship between Tony and Mrs. Lautmann is quite sweet, and Tony’s interactions with his neighbors are entertaining, too. But we’re never allowed to forget that this story isn’t going to end nicely. This is Nazi-backed facism, after all. The movie’s score is always unsettling, alternating between a boisterous polka and a lone, screechy violin whose every note seems to drip with contempt. The music seems out of place initially, but we know it’s only a matter of time before those cues become eerily appropriate.
And when things go downhill, they go downhill fast. One day Tony is managing market day crowds in the shop, and the next his friends are being rounded up in the square, or being beaten and humiliated for being a “Jew-lover.” It’s all driving home the point that seemingly innocuous leaderships can reveal horrific agendas at any time.
Tony’s final scene with Mrs. Lautmann is a real heartbreaker, too. He tries to get her to hide from the crowd of Nazis outside, but the old woman doesn’t understand what’s going on. She’s angry at him for opening her shop on the Sabbath. His constant pleading and her anger at him while serious danger lies just outside is hard to watch.
The closing moments of “The Shop on Main Street” feature Tony looking directly at the camera, then averting his eyes. It’s rather heavy-handed, which is unfortunate for a movie that, until that point, was more subtle. But Kadar and Klos have an agenda, and they want to make sure their audience gets it. It’s as effective as a hammer to the back of the head.
“The Shop on Main Street” is a red-hot scathing satire. It stops just short of contemptuous, allowing Tony to become a likable character capable of real inner change before yanking the rug out from under him and proving that in situations of true moral decision-making, he’s still a selfish coward. Unlike Milos Forman’s pointed but warmly funny movies, “The Shop on Main Street” is all about the sharp jabs. This isn’t the work of a good-humored director poking fun at the establishment. This is the work of people who are really, really mad about the state of their country, and the passive attitude that allowed it to happen.