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TCM Imports - July 2008
Remind Me

The Shop on Main Street

The Shop on Main Street (1965) is a small but devastating picture that traces the effects of Fascism on a pair of innocent lives. This emotionally resonant work earned an Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 1965, and firmly placed its co-directors, Jan Kadar and Elmar Klos, in the upper echelon of 1960s filmmakers.

Jozef Kroner stars as Tono Briko, a scruffy Czech carpenter who, to put it kindly, lacks ambition. When Germany starts nationalizing all Jewish-owned businesses, Tono's family pulls strings to get him a job as the overseer of a small button shop owned by an elderly Jewish woman (Ida Kaminska). Tono's do-nothing position is made all the more pointless by the fact that the woman, who's virtually deaf, doesn't even know that there's a war going on! Kadar and Klos play this set-up for a surprising amount of dark humor.

Eventually, the old woman's friends realize that she'll be shipped off to a concentration camp if she doesn't hire an Aryan co-worker, so they pay Tono to become her assistant. Tono and the woman unexpectedly develop a warm friendship; their slowly opening up to one another comprises the bulk of the film. But Tono's loyalty is put to the test when the Nazi party finally orders that all Jews must be rounded up and sent to camps. Viewers may be shocked by the course of action that Tono, who finally grasps the reality of the situation, chooses to take.

Rather than trying to examine the Holocaust on a grand scale, The Shop on Main Street focuses on two "common" individuals. In this way, Kadar and Klos humanize a situation that's otherwise too overwhelming to fully comprehend. The script also seamlessly moves from comedy to despair, no small feat given the overriding darkness of the subject matter. There's an almost organic quality to the proceedings, a sense that real life is unfolding before your very eyes, and it's difficult to look away when things are at their bleakest. You care that much about the characters.

In an interview included with Criterion's DVD release of The Shop on Main Street, Kadar rightfully heaps praise on Kroner's performance, which manages to sell an extremely difficult film. "I knew before shooting started that Kroner was the only candidate for the part. The first rushes proved I was right...(Kroner) helped in an amazing way to underline the farcical aspects of the story. His work defies classification - he is too strong a personality." Kadar, by the way, knew more than a little bit about Nazi brutality. His studies in Czechoslovakia's Bratislava Film School ended when was locked away in a forced labor camp. That intimate knowledge of very real horror helps make The Shop on Main Street one of the more memorable films to deal with the Holocaust.

Producer: Jaromir Lukas, Jordan Balurov
Director: Jan Kadar, Elmar Klos
Screenplay: Jan Kadar, Elmar Klos, Ladislav Grosman (based on a short story by Grosman)
Cinematography: Vladimir Novotny
Music: Zdenek Liska
Editor: Jaromir Janacek, Diana Heringova
Art Design: Karel Skvor
Principal Cast: Jozef Kroner (Tono Brtko), Ida Kaminska (Rozalie Lautmann), Hana Slivkova (Evelina Brtko), Frantisek Zvarik (Marcus Kolkotsky), Helena Zvarikov (Rose Kolkotsky), Martin Holly (Imro Kuchar), Martin Gregor (Katz), Adam Matejka (Piti Baci), Mikulas Ladzinsky (Marian Peter).
B&W-128m. Letterboxed.

by Paul Tatara



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