Thursday, 26 July 2018

The Shop on Main Street (Obchod na Korze) (1965)

Butikken på hovedgaden
It has been a long while since my last post. Over the past month I have been busy relocating back to Denmark after six years in Israel. My family and I have now moved into a not so big, but very nice apartment in Copenhagen and although it is largely empty, most of our possessions are taking a pleasant cruise on the Atlantic in a container, I am slowly starting to watch movies again.

The first movie in my new home is the Czechoslovakian movie “The Shop on Main Street” (Obchod na korze). A movie I knew absolutely nothing about, but which appears to be incredibly famous. It won “Best Foreign Language movie” in 1965 and is mentioned as being the most famous movie to come out of Czechoslovakia. Or certainly out of Slovakia.

It is a low-key movie about a humble carpenter, Tono (Jozef Kroner), in a small Slovakian town in 1942. Tono lives a quiet life, happy making furniture or going around with his dog. The main problem in his life is that he is being pestered by his wife Evelina (Hana Slivková), who wants more in life, particularly money, status and the lifestyle of her sister Ruzena (Elena Pappová-Zvaríková), the wife of the town commandant Markus (František Zvarík). Markus’ position in the SS equivalent Hlinka guard makes him a powerful and wealthy man and Tono hates him with a vengeance.

As part of the prosecution of the Jews in town, all their businesses are assigned an “Aryan controller” and Markus is assigning Tono as Aryan controller of a button shop belonging to the elderly Mrs. Lautman (Ida Kamińska). While Evelina considers this a gold mine, Tono is more reluctant and he soon finds that Mrs. Lautman is a sweet old lady, half deaf and somewhat senile, who has little idea about what is going on. The shop is a scam to keep her happy while in reality she is supported by the Jewish community. Tono finds that he likes her and his role of taking care of her so instead of plundering her shop he helps her and fixes her furniture.

All that comes to a sudden end when the Jews are rounded up and sent to the extermination camps and Tono finds himself in a pinch: Help the old lady and be hunted as a Jew-lover or send her to her death.

This is a holocaust movie, but a different kind than the usual ones. There are no big numbers here, instead we meet regular folks caught in the horrors of the genocide. Tono is an every-guy, who wants to stay out of politics, but are forced to take a stand. An impossible stand as it turns out. He can be an accomplice to the genocide or he can try to follow his conscience at the cost of his own life. For a hero this may sound like an easy choice, but for a regular dude this is not easy at all. He just wants to go away, be somewhere else, but he cannot. As such he represents the typical central European population during the war.

This personal touch also makes the movie more moving and heartbreaking than the typical holocaust movie. I understand the people, they are real people, even the bad ones, and the monumental disaster becomes personal. Mrs. Lautman does not deserve to die. The boy Danko does not deserve to die and as Mr. Katz, the barber, says, “When the authorities prosecute the innocent then it is the end of it”. The rounding up of the Jews is in very real terms the Armageddon, the collapse of the normal world.

It is this particular angle that makes “The Shop on Main Street” stand out. The normal, cozy world of real people that collides with the lowest of human evilness. Everything in the cinematography supports this: The town setting, the low-key home of Tono, the casual life they lead and the adorable Mrs. Lautman. The music has folk elements that are replaced by an alarming violin. The lighting changes from sun-bathed pleasantness to stark black and white desolation.

I was very pleased with this movie, it is a great and moving film to watch, but also heartbreaking as an effective Holocaust movie is supposed to be. This is not my favorite genre and less so as I get older, but this is definitely one to see and not just for its message. Highly recommended.