Czechoslovak Film Review: The Shop on Main Street (Obchod na korze) – Ján Kadár and Elmar Klos, 1965

The Shop on Main Street

“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…

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Waiter, Scarper! (Vrchní, prchni!) – Ladislav Smoljak, 1981

In my first review for this site, Accumulator 1, I commented on how Zdeněk Svěrák (Kolya, Empties) was the clear highlight of an otherwise unbalanced film. This time around, I’m delighted to explore a project that actually showcases more of his talents as a screenwriter as well as an actor. Written and directed, respectively, by the duo of Sverák and Ladislav Smoljak, Waiter, Scarper! tells the story of a bookseller named Vrána (Josef Abrhám) who becomes a thief by posing as a waiter to take money from unsuspecting customers…

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Adelheid (1970) – František Vláčil

Petr Cepak in Adelheid

Shot in wintry hues and set against a tumultuous backdrop of the expulsion of Germans from Czechoslovakia in the aftermath of World War II, František Vláčil’s Adelheid is a tragic drama about two shellshocked, fatally star-crossed lovers who find each other amid the psychic fallout from the conflict.

The story opens in 1945. The war may be over but it’s still a dangerous time, with lawlessness and banditry as the liberated country tries to find its feet again. Troubled Lieutenant Viktor Chotovick (Petr Čepek) arrives in a small town after spending the war moving from place to place, longing to return to his home country. He is treated with initial suspicion by Sergeant Hejna (Jan Vostrcil, a familiar face from Miloš Forman’s New Wave stuff, including Loves of a Blonde and The Firemen’s Ball). Turns out Viktor is in town with a job to do – he’s been assigned to catalogue and manage a large isolated mansion.

The assignment suits Viktor because he’s just trying to get his head together after the war. The mansion was formerly the home of a wealthy Jewish family before it was commandeered by a local Nazi party member, Heidenmann, who has been captured and taken to Olomouc to await execution. What Viktor isn’t told is that the mansion comes with a cleaner and a cook – Heidenmann’s daughter, Adelheid (Emma Černá), who is sent by Hejna to serve Viktor…

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Lemonade Joe (Limonádový Joe) – Oldřich Lipský, 1964

Lemonade Joe Karel Fiala

Honestly, I have nostalgia goggles the size of monster truck wheels for this one! Lemonade Joe, or the Horse Opera came out in 1964 but my entire generation can quote it to no end. It falls into the perfect timing of being a new film for our parent’s childhood and old enough to be cool for our own. So within the Czech culture, this film is a classic.

Even so, I was afraid to revisit it. Many films from my childhood didn’t age well and I was afraid the same would happen here. What didn’t help was a vague memory of blackface and some of the timeless quotes feeling kind of tired after the last fifteen years of repetition.

But I was pleasantly surprised. The film has an energy that most modern comedies long for. Lemonade Joe falls into the Crazy comedy genre, popular in the Czech Republic, which includes titles such as Adele Hasn’t Had Her Dinner Yet or The Mysterious Castle in the Carpathians. In American cinema, it would be a mixture of Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles and John Landis’ The Blues Brothers. It takes the nonsensical, absurdist plot and the song breaks from Blues Brothers and the setting with quick-fire jokes and slapstick from Blazing Saddles. It might be surprising to some that it’s older than both…

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Witchhammer (Kladivo na čarodějnice) – Otakar Vávra, 1970

An innocent burnt at the stake in Witchhammer

“A woman’s womb is the gateway to Hell,” whispers a rabidly fanatical monk at the beginning of Otakar Vávra’s Witchhammer (Kladivo na čarodějnice), while we cut away to watch a group of women bathing nude.

It’s a provocative opening and, although Vávra had the Communist show trials of the 1950s in mind while making the film, it sets out its stall early: the problem is the patriarchy, and sexual repression goes hand-in-hand with political repression, a theme that is as depressingly relevant fifty years later. Or 300-odd years on from the events of the film. Same as it ever was.

The film takes its title from the Malleus Maleficarum, a weighty 15th-century tome that details at length the procedures deemed necessary for dealing with witchcraft, including the methods of torture that were legally permissible for extracting confessions from the accused…

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Adele Hasn’t Had Her Dinner Yet (Adéla ještě nevečeřela) – Oldřich Lipský, 1977

Adele Hasn't Had Her Dinner Yet 1977

Dora Charleston: Mr Diamond, you have a bullet hole in your back!

Sam Diamond: You should see the other guy.

– Maggie Smith & Peter Falk hamming it up in Murder by Death

The 1970s was a big decade for pastiches of classic detective fiction. Robert Altman brought a slovenly, anachronistic Philip Marlowe into a bohemian, weed-scented Los Angeles in The Long Goodbye; there was a whole raft of reimaginings of the Sherlock Holmes myth, including The Seven-Per-Cent Solution and The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother; Neil Simon brought together a roster of thinly-disguised classic sleuths – Sam Spade, Miss Marple, Charlie Chan, Hercule Poirot and Nick and Nora Charles – in his silly spoof Murder by Death.

Even the Czechs got in on the act, with Oldřich Lipský’s Adele Hasn’t Had Her Dinner Yet (Adéla ještě nevečeřela) resurrecting a gumshoe from an earlier era that I wasn’t familiar with: Nick Carter…

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Accumulator 1 (Akumulátor 1)  -  Jan Svěrák, 1994

Zdeněk Svěrák in Accumulator 1

Co-written and directed by Jan Svěrák (Kolya, The Elementary School), Accumulator 1 is an entertaining film that features a lot of interesting ideas, but they just don’t come together in a way that’s coherent enough to justify their existence.

The film features a pretty bizarre premise: people who have appeared on television are suddenly losing their energy and dying. The main character, a self-conscious man named Olda (Petr Forman) turns into a recluse after he misses his shot with the girl he’s interested in. He becomes so lethargic that all he does is watch TV for a whole week and loses consciousness for a couple of days. The paramedics save him by barging into his apartment, and at the hospital, he meets a mysterious man, Fišarek (Zdeněk Svěrák), who heals him with his special abilities.

Fišarek refers to himself as a natural healer. He helps people that have also suffered from the same condition as Olda. To reinvigorate himself, Fišarek advises Olda to gather energy from natural sources like exercise, the life force of trees, paintings, and even sexual stimulation. He teaches Olda how to harness the energy from these sources, and even shows him how to transfer energy over long distances…

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Empties (Vratné lahve) – Jan Svěrák, 2007

Back when I was completely skint (as opposed to just moderately skint nowadays), bottle returns were a lifesaver just before payday. With a 3kc deposit coming back on every bottle, you could fund another evening’s beer with a moderate stack of empties!

Now, most supermarket chains in the Czech Republic have moved across to automated deposit machines. They lack the personal touch of handing over your bottles through a little window to a person standing in the gloom of the shop’s stockroom, shuffling empties into crates and handing over handwritten tickets for the amount you could deduct from your next purchase. Some smaller stores still have bottle return windows, but it is clear that it’s a dying profession.

Zdeněk and Jan Svěrák, the crack father and son team behind popular hits like The Elementary School and Kolya, have often made films touched with nostalgia. They join forces once again for Empties (Vratné lahve), a compassionate and grown-up comedy-drama that largely revolves around a man finding a new lease of life when he gets one of these endangered jobs, working the bottle returns window at his local supermarket…

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Kajínek – Petr Jákl, 2010

In May 2017 Jiří Kajínek, a gangster, robber and hardman, was released from prison after serving 23 years of two life sentences, pardoned by President Zeman. During that time he became something of a folk hero in the Czech Republic. Sent down for the brutal killing of a businessman and his bodyguard, doubts persisted about his case, with over half of Czechs believing he was wrongfully accused.

Petr Jákl’s 2010 crime saga is a pulpy retelling of Kajínek’s struggles, including his infamous breakout from Mirov prison, known as the “Czech Alcatraz”. Former stuntman Jákl directs the film like a man setting himself alight and flinging himself down a flight of stairs. He’s used to making situations exciting, I guess, and has no qualms about cramming just about every thriller trope there is into his movie, trying to pump as much drama as he can into each scene. It’s a heady mix of prison breakout movie, legal drama and conspiracy thriller, and it’s got the lot – sadistic screws, transparently corrupt bad guys, tense escape scenes, and bursts of gory violence…

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The Snowdrop Festival (Slavnosti sněženek) – Jiří Menzel, 1984

In The Snowdrop Festival (Slavnosti sněženek) Jiří Menzel returns to the well to make another gentle comedy featuring his favourite things: the works of Bohumil Hrabal, Rudolf Hrušínský, the idyllic Czech countryside, and the shenanigans of quarrelsome but essentially good-hearted village folk.

As with many of Menzel’s films in a similar vein (Capricious Summer, My Sweet Little Village, Seclusion Near a Forest) the plot is slight – more a comic panorama than a conventional narrative, as Vincent Canby of the New York Times kindly put it. The pacing of The Snowdrop Festival is relaxed even by Menzel’s standards, with the film apparently starting before anyone in it has noticed…

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