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Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Review: The Shop on Main Street (1965)

* * * *

Director: Jan Kadar, Elmar Klos
Starring: Jozef Kroner, Ida Kaminska

I’ve been hearing for years about what a great movie The Shop on Main Street is, but even so I wasn’t prepared for how involved I would find myself in this story. By the time it reached its conclusion, I was on the edge of my seat, completely enthralled by what was unfolding before me. This isn’t simply a great movie; it’s one of the best movies I’ve ever seen.

Set in a small Czech town during World War II, the film follows the fortunes of Brtko (Jozef Kroner), a carpenter with a shrewish wife and a bullying brother-in-law. Through his brother-in-law, Brtko is given proprietorship of a shop on Main Street owned by Mrs. Lautmann (Ida Kaminska), an elderly Jewish widow. Brtko arrives at the shop prepared to take over, only to find that Mrs. Lautmann doesn’t quite grasp the situation and can’t be made to understand because she can’t see well enough to read the order giving Brtko control of the shop, and is too deaf for Brtko to be able to explain it to her. Through a friend of his who is able to see things as they really are (and will later pay the price for it), Brtko is talked into pretending to run the shop as a way to protect Mrs. Lautmann from a more forceful proprietor. Slowly, a friendship develops between these two very different characters.

For much of the film, the story unfolds in a comedic way, focusing on Brtko attempting and failing to properly communicate with Mrs. Lautmann. Mrs. Lautmann seems to have no conception of what is happening in the town as all the Jewish shops are taken over and the Jewish residents are increasingly marginalized and treated as second-class citizens. She seems, in fact, not even to have any conception that there’s a war going on at all. As the film progresses, Brtko and some of the other residents enter into a kind of agreement to keep Mrs. Lautmann in the dark about what’s going on in both the town and the world so as not to upset her. Meanwhile, Mrs. Lautmann believes that she’s doing Brtko the favour and taking care of him by allowing him to assist her in the shop even though he’s ridiculously inept at even the most simple tasks.

The comedy evaporates, however, by the end of the film, when the local authorities begin rounding up all the Jews to take them away to concentration camps. To Brtko’s relief, he finds out that Mrs. Lautmann’s name has somehow been left off the list, but knows that he must keep her out of sight so that she’ll remain out of mind. On the day of deportations, he must open the shop as usual and pretend that everything is fine so that no one will suspect that he’s hiding her, a fact which could have dire consequences for him if found out. Meanwhile, Mrs. Lautmann remains in the back of the shop, furious with Brtko for opening on the Sabbath, praying with nary a suspicion of what’s going on outside her doors.

The final minutes of the film are so perfect, so brilliant that I can’t really put them into words. I didn’t realize how fully engaged I was, how attached to the characters until these final moments and it’s a testament to the skill of directors Jan Kadar and Elmer Klos, as well as the subtle and graceful performances of Kaminska and Kroner, that this relatively simple story is so very powerful.

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