Sunday 11 February 2007

The Shop on Main Street (1965) Ján Kadár & Elmar Klos

On the last day of 1941 in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia, the Czechs are watching trains again. Even the station looks similar to that in Closely Watched Trains, the other film from the Czech New Wave to win the Best Foreign Film Oscar, which it did two years after this one woke the world up to such a thing. It only took me another forty years to catch up but I think I can be excused because I wasn't even born in 1965.

The lead character is Tono, who in the tradition of the Czech New Wave doesn't do a heck of a lot. He's a carpenter who makes troughs and gates, it seems, for a little money but ends up taking payment in pigeons. He enjoys simple pleasures like walking his dog and playing hopscotch on the street, soaking his feet in water and chatting with the locals. However he can't stand his brother in law who is the local Nazi commander. This seems to be mutual but Tono is still gifted with the administration of a local Jewish store that has been appropriated by the Nazis.

Tono is played by Jozef Króner, who is wonderful. He was a real actor, unlike many who played parts in Czech New Wave films, and his range of emotions is joyous to see. He can go from bitter and drunkenly shouting to wry smiles and obvious depth in seconds and still be believable throughout. He quickly discovers that Mrs Lautmann who runs this shop on Main Street is half blind, mostly deaf, quite possibly senile to boot, and has almost nothing left to sell, living on alms that the rest of the Jewish community raise for her. In short, he's been given a lemon by his brother-in-law after the real Nazis have divided up all the profitable places between themselves.

He ends up helping her out without her even understanding that he's really in charge, becoming something akin to friends with her in the process. He fixes up the woodwork on her broken down furniture and she gives him clothes that belonged to her dead husband, though of course he has to hide all of this from his wife and especially from her Nazi brother. These joyous double acts are the heart of the film, with Mrs Lautmann's blissful ignorance of everything going on being a close second. She's played by Ida Kaminska, a hugely influential Jewish actress who is stunning here, and was even nominated for an Oscar for her work, something almost unheard of in 1965 for a foreign language performance.

There's a tone to The Shop on Main Street that fits with the other couple of Czech New Wave pictures that I've seen, and it's joyous. It's no comedy, that's for sure, but it treats serious subjects with a light heart and such films enrich the soul. There's plenty of seriousness here: we work through the period when the Jews are gradually dispossessed, then marked, then shipped off to camps. In many ways Tono is as oblivious to what's going on as Mrs Lautmann: he understands some of it but gradually comes to realise just what the Nazis are up to. The ending is a peach and reminds me in one way of Brazil: hardly a standard happy ending.

The music helps too. I've always had a passion for Eastern European music, classical or folk, with an abundance of fiddles and power, and there's plenty here to have kept me happy even had the story not kept up with it, which it surely does. Some of the solo violin work is truly creepy, and the main themes powerful. This one's a gem, even more so than Closely Watched Trains, which is another great Czech film from this era. I really need to start checking out what else the Czech New Wave did and how I can get to see more of the films that comprised it. I'm three for three right now.

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