“Of all my films, The Shop on Main Street touches me most closely. Elmar Klos and I usually work as equal partners, but in this case he left me a free hand. He knows that I am not thinking of the fate of all the six million tortured Jews, but that my work is shaped by the fate of my father, my friends’ fathers, mothers of those near to me and by people whom I have known. I am not interested in the outer trappings—figures, statements, generalizations. I want to make emotive films…”
– Ján Kadár, New York Herald Tribune, Jan 23 1966
With any major catastrophe resulting in the loss of human life, I often find it difficult to get my head around the numbers. Sometimes incidental details can help visualize the size of the tragedy. For example, after I first watched The Shop on Main Street and was pondering Kadár’s quote above, the official Coronavirus death toll in the UK had just passed 30,000. That’s roughly a capacity crowd at Portman Road in Ipswich, where I was a season ticket holder for ten years. So now I only had to imagine a packed stadium suddenly silenced forever to get to grips with the scale of the public health disaster/scandal in my country.
But six million? A quick Google search tells me that is approximately the entire population of Turkmenistan, which doesn’t really help comprehend the vastness of the Holocaust. And that is the brilliance of The Shop on Main Street – better than anything else I’ve seen on the subject, it narrows the focus down to two individuals and makes us feel personally involved in the horror of their circumstances. The 55-year-old Academy Award winner hit me hard, feeling as fresh and vital as any other film I’ve seen about the Holocaust in recent years.
The Shop on Main Street wears its flawed greatness lightly, starting with a comedic tone and growing darker, building a sense of dread until its harrowing conclusion. And then… well, spoilers ahead: I’ll talk about that ending later…
The story begins in 1942 in a small town in Slovakia. In the wake of the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, a separate Slovak state has been established, and the president Jozef Tiso has been quick to fall in line with the Nazi’s race laws. One of the key regulations crucial to the film is the policy of “Aryanization”, kicking Jewish business owners out and transferring their property into “Aryan” hands to “de-Jew the economy”.
Despite this, all appears well. It’s a bright sunny day, a band is playing cheerful oom-pah-pah music in the park, and the townsfolk are enjoying a stroll in the fine weather. However, there are rumours abound that serious trouble is coming for the town’s Jewish community.
We meet Tóno Brtko (Jozef Kroner), a modest carpenter and his nagging wife Evelina (Hana Slivková). Tóno is a classic Everyman character, a regular guy who just wants to be left alone, but constantly getting it in the neck from his other half for not making enough money.
One evening they receive a visit from Evelina’s sister Ružena (Elena Pappová-Zvaríková) and her husband Markus (František Zvarík), who is town commander under the Nazis and enjoying all the power and riches the role provides. Tóno is resentful of his brother-in-law after some previous family squabbles, but after showering them with food and expensive presents, Markus has another gift for the carpenter. He has assigned him as the “Aryan controller” of a small button shop on the main square, currently owned by an elderly Jewish widow, Mrs Lautmannová (Ida Kamińska in a heartbreaking performance).
Turns out the business is a bust as all the good Jewish businesses have already been handed out, and the near-senile Mrs Lautmannová is getting by on handouts from the Jewish community. Nevertheless, Tóno makes out to his materialistic wife that things are going well, and he’s offered a decent wage from Mrs Lautmannová’s benefactors to sit tight and look after her.
Initially frustrated by his inability to communicate with her, Tóno soon develops a bond with the old lady. He finds refuge from his overbearing wife at the shop, and enjoys being mothered. She enjoys the company and he likes pottering about the place, fixing up her antique furniture. Mrs Lautmannová is completely oblivious to the ominous signs around her, even with Markus overseeing the construction of a nationalistic “Tower of Victory” right outside her shop.
The film is divided into roughly two halves. The first establishes the town and a small group of characters, played well by a memorable cast of mostly Slovak actors. There are small clues that things aren’t as rosy under the new rule – prices are going up, unpaid taxes are demanded under threat of severe punishment – and a chill sense of dread grows, despite the overall lightness of tone.
Around the halfway mark the mood shifts as the local authorities begin deporting the Jewish community. Tóno is still trying to do the right thing and help Mrs Lautmannová, opening the shop on the sabbath against her wishes to avoid drawing attention, but is increasingly afraid of being caught and punished as a “Jew-lover” like his friend Mr Kuchár (Martin Hollý Sr.), a member of the resistance.
Eventually the pressure grows too much for Tóno. In a cruel twist of fate, when he and Mrs Lautmannová are offered a chance of reprieve by a Nazi admin error, he’s too frightened and lacks the presence of mind to take advantage of it. This last stretch is played out almost like a suspense thriller, with the roll call of Jewish family names on the town loudspeakers effectively acting as a ticking clock to the discovery of the amiable old lady.
The first time around I was on the edge of my seat, feeling a little bad about enjoying the film so much – I guess that’s why it is so powerful. It doesn’t batter you over the head with gruelling horrors like, say, Son of Saul. It delivers its message in a really enjoyable cinematic package and is all the more effective for it.
By the conclusion, with a drunken, panicking Tóno hiding in the shop with an anguished Mrs Lautmannová, the film has taken on an almost noirish visual style, with expressionistic lightning giving a ghoulish cast to the carpenter’s hangdog face. While we fear for Mrs Lautmannová’s life, one of the harshest lessons of the film is how the threat of reprisal has such a damaging psychological effect on our protagonist, turning an otherwise decent man into someone capable of sending a helpless old lady away to her death to save his own skin.
Then, just as it looks like Kadár & Klos are going to stick the landing… well, woof! That’s the only word I have for the ending.
Remember the spoiler alert?
Tóno has accidentally killed Mrs Lautmannová trying to keep her quiet, and, stricken with guilt, hangs himself. He closes the store and strings himself up from a hook in the ceiling. Then… the doors of the shop open, a heavenly light shines through and the pair, dressed up to the nines, dance away down the street to some jaunty brass band music.
There is already perfect end to this film a scene or two earlier: as Tóno closes the shop and walks away to commit suicide, we’re left with an evocative, simple shot of sunlight shining through cracks in the shutters. That’s it – leave it there.
The idea of hanging was already established earlier in the film when Tóno notices some string dangling from a beam in his garden, and we’ve already seen him looking up at the hook in the ceiling after he’s discovered that he has killed the old lady. That should be enough, but instead, it goes on for another scene and tacks on that weirdly feel-good ending.
It would have been mawkish but maybe that ending would’ve worked if the story had them, say, gunned down while trying to escape and Tóno heroically trying to shield her. But the dream sequence is so completely at odds with how their relationship ended: Mrs Lautmannová dying in a closet, bewildered, afraid and feeling betrayed, and Tóno so ashamed of himself that has no choice but to end his own life. The dancing-down-the-street ending diminishes the power of an otherwise devastating conclusion, and lets Tóno – and the audience – off the hook.
I sat on it for a week and watched the film again before writing this article in case the ending played any better the second time around, but it didn’t. In short, The Shop on Main Street is an almost perfect film, let down by a severely misjudged ending. And, as is becoming depressingly repetitive when reviewing films of this nature, it is still extremely relevant today. As Kadár states later in the same article: “For the lot of the Jews one can substitute the lot of anyone in this world.”
A note on the title of this article: I understand that there is some dispute about whether the film is more representative of Czech, Slovak or Czechoslovak culture. While it was funded by the state and produced by Barrandov Studios in Prague, it was shot in Slovakia with a mostly Slovak cast and tells a specifically Slovak story. While I haven’t bothered about other films that were made while the two countries were known as Czechoslovakia, The Shop on Main Street is clearly a work of historic, cultural and artistic importance, so I think it’s good form to make the distinction on this occasion. If I’ve made any cultural mistakes in this please let me know and I’ll amend!