Thursday, April 05, 2007

The Shop on Main Street

The 1965 Czechoslovakian film The Shop on the Main Street (according to the current Geography it is a Slovakian film) fits in the template of the other Czech films of its time very well, sometimes also known as the films of the Czech New Wave. Though in a sense it is technically less adventurous than other films like Loves of a Blonde, Closely Watched Trains or The Firemen's Ball (all three I love very much btw), it still fits in together with these with its tone and narrative themes. The characteristic bleak humour is there and so is the absurd antithesis of a heroic character at the center of the story. (Works of Czech literature like Kafka's novels or Good Soldier Svejk fit this template too.)

The subject is quite familiar -- the fate of jews during the second world war -- and has been tackled many times before. This film is a little different though because here the main focus is on neither the victim nor the oppressor but rather the bystander and the collaborator. People who just stood by or even helped the fascists in their own small, but not insignificant, ways without realizing the serious implications of their small acts or even their inaction. The subject of civilian collaboration is a highly controversial topic, at least in Germany. How far were the ordinary Germans responsible for Holocaust? There are all kinds of historical arguments, some like in the book Hitler's Willing Executioners claim that it was the "eliminationist anti-semitism" of German population which led to holocaust and that Hitler was just following his people's will, still on the extreme left, historians lay the blame squarely on the socio-economic circumstances in Germany following the first world war. There are various schools of opinion in between the two extremes too.

From this background, The Shop on Main Street creates a very revealing portrait of one such collaborator. Of course it doesn't say that everybody was like him and it was applicable everywhere but in this character the film lays bare all the moral weakness and failings, minor though they seem at first, that eventually allowed the crime to be committed, if not by actively participating in it. Tono Brtko, the antihero, is a local carpenter in a small Slovak town. He is mercilessly nagged by his wife at home who demands that he ask his fascist brother-in-law, the local fascist commander, for a job. Soon he lands up being an "Aryan controller" of a shop being run by an old Jewish woman Mrs. Lautmann. The problem is there is nothing to be run in the shop! She is herself living on the charity of the local Jewish community. On top of that, the old woman is senile, hard of hearing and doesn't even understand that a war is going on or that jews are being persecuted, harassed and deported. The two characters create some wonderful comic moments together and soon develop a sort of understanding and affection for each other. But soon the Germans demand all the jews to be deported to "labour camps" and Tono finds himself torn between the contradictory feelings of trying to save the old woman on the one hand and his own skin and life on the other. The last half hour of the film in which Tono struggles with his conflicting emotions is absolutely brilliant. I won't reveal the ending but it is devastating.

This film somehow reminded me of Schindler's List and with which it does compare very favourably (not counting the technical craft that went into making Schindler's List). Unlike Spielberg the director Jan Kadar isn't interested in turning the story into a redemptive fable or in proving the existence of "goodness" or in fact in proving anything at all. In many ways Tono Brtko is a far more realistic and complex character than Schindler (even though the later was a historical character) and he is also the anti-thesis of Schindler in many ways. There are no redemptive epiphanic moments here with the soaring orchestra score in the background, no scenes of painful spiritual transformation and there are no cathartic speech-makings. In the end what comes out is the generosity and ruthlessness with which the human character and its failings are analysed and dissected. And that's what makes it so powerful and affecting. Of course the two lead actors are extra-ordinarily good. Absolutely Flawless and Brilliant. This is one of the few times Oscars got it absolutely right (it won the best foreign film award for 1965).

This is an essay by the director on the criterion site. Of course, highly recommended.


km said...

Very well-written review, Alok.

This is such a great film. The final sequence never fails to astound me.

jyothsnay said...

this review certainly carries your signature, a crisp point of view, with that tantalising edge...great stuff!

I feel, Civialian collaboration is such a condemnable behaviour.One seems to carry many "Black Spots" of such kind, an invisible conflict,a meek surrender to the situation, while preparing self to avoid the about to start relentless probing of conscience in the head.
how does one feel when the pointed questions about what's been done, the share of guilt milling about every moment?
what an erroneous set of stereotypes the history had produced, unfortunately, so much like an average human.
both logically and morally,it is a human tragedy, right?
I would love to watch this movie "closely watched trains"

Alok said...

km: thanks! glad that you liked the film too.

jyothsna:it is condemnable definitely, yes, but this film shows that it is also understandable. that of course doesn't diminish one's responsibility.

Closely Watched Trains is very good. You will definitely like it.

DaInfomaster said...

The concept of surviving absurdity is the essence of Svejk whom you mentioned. To learn more about Svejk, visit SvejkCentral. There is also a new English translation.

Alok said...

thanks for the links, will check.