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Tuesday, February 16, 2016

The Shop on Main Street

The winner of Best Foreign Language Film for 1965 was The Shop on Main Street, a Czechoslovakian film directed by Jan Kadar and Elmar Klos, and set during the early days of World War II, when Aryanism had descended on a sleepy little town in Slovakia and "arinisation" was taking place. This was when Jewish shopkeepers were "managed" by Aryans, which is kind of interesting, since sound business acumen is usually the one good trait that even the most hardened anti-Semite acknowledges in Jews.

The film shifts in tone, which is the most interesting thing about it. It starts as a comedy, really, with hen-pecked carpenter Jozef Kroner finally getting a bone thrown to him by his brother-in-law, who is commandant of the Nazi police force. He is given control over a notions shop run by an old Jewish woman (Ida Kaminska). Kroner puts on a suit and tie, dreaming he will be rich (his wife thinks the old woman has gold hidden in the place) but finds that she doesn't understand what's going on, as she's hard of hearing and can't read the decree. A kindly man, whom the authorities suspect of being a "Jew lover," explains that her shop is worthless, and that she makes a living from donations from the Jewish community. Kroner is about to storm off when the man says the Jewish community will also pay him a nice salary just to help her out and be a mensch.

And so this goes on, with the dotty old lady never quite understanding why this man is helping. Kroner has the face and limberness of a clown, and even at one point puts on a derby and says he looks like Charlie Chaplin. I couldn't help but wonder if Roberto Benigni had this film in mind when he was creating Life Is Beautiful.

I mention that film, because it too goes from slapstick to horror on a dime. The kindly man is beaten and dragged away. Kroner gets a tip that the Jews will be deported, taken off to work camps. He wants to hide Kaminska, but he can't get her to understand what's going on, at least until she remembers the pogroms of her youth. Then Kroner doesn't know whether to save her or himself. The last twenty minutes or so of this film is almost too excruciating to watch.

The film was made at the height of Soviet control of Czechoslovakia, and even though it was approved one can't help but wonder if the use of fascism was also a dig at Stalinism. Kaminksa would be nominated the following year for a Best Actress Oscar (she was a Polish actress, who later came to America and starred in Yiddish Theater). But it's Kroner who carries the film. It's well worth seeing.

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