The Shop On Main Street (Day 28)

Shop on Main Street

My Opinion: 6.6 || Caustic portrait of life in a totalitarian state and the extreme difficulty of reconciling morality with self-preservation. As a film about the Holocaust, it distinguishes itself by not scoring easy moral points or making overly familiar gestures — what we get, instead, is a probing exploration of complicity in evil. There are weaknesses in execution, but the film’s moral integrity sets it apart.

TITLE: The Shop on Main Street (Obchod na korze)
DIRECTORs: Ján Kadár, Elmar Klos
LANGUAGE: Czech | COUNTRY: The Czech Republic (Czechoslovakia)
YEAR: 1965
PROFILE: Historical Drama | 128 minutes | IMDb (8.1)

SYNOPSIS (Courtesy of Netflix): An inept Czech peasant is torn between greed and guilt when the corrupt, Nazi-backed bosses of his small town appoint him “Aryan controller” of an old Jewish widow’s button shop in this drama that earned an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. Filmed near the height of Soviet oppression in the former Czechoslovakia, humor and tragedy fuse in this scathing exploration of one cowardly man’s complicity in the horrors of a totalitarian regime.

The Shop on Main Street

Strengths: It’s easier to paint in black and white than in shades of gray. Easier to arouse our righteous hatred of evil than to make us consider honestly how we would react to evil. And easier to pluck our heartstrings with images of suffering victims than to lead us into a real consideration of what we would risk in order to shield those victims. The filmmakers deserve enormous credit for exploring such tricky territory and eschewing easy answers. Rather than decrying evil from a comfortable moral distance, they paint us into the evil and explore the small steps toward complicity.

Weaknesses: The filmmakers misstep with their protagonist, who’s a little too feckless. It’s not a huge misstep, but the film would have been more powerful with a protagonist who was less incompetent and weak-willed. It’s too easy to distance ourselves from the somewhat buffoonish Tony. If the story showed an otherwise principled and intelligent person being reeled into complicity with Nazism, it’s impact would have been greater.

Most of the film’s virtues can be traced to Ladislav Grosman’s script. As directors, Kadár and Klos are competent, but there’s not much visual interest in their style, and their command of pacing is sometimes off. The two “dream” sequences, including the final scene, don’t work very well as representations of Tony’s inner world and are fairly unconvincing as dreams.

The Shop on Main Street

Best Moment: There’s a scene where Tony is walking down the main street with his brother-in-law the fascist collaborator, who is giving the heil salute to everyone he passes. Tony, meanwhile is diffidently half-saluting and half-tipping his hat. It’s a great representation of trying to resist conformity while not sticking your neck out too far.

File Under: World War II, resistance, cowardice, genocide, complicity in evil