On my grandfather’s death bed, he made a shocking admission about my family’s ethnic heritage that no one besides him had known. He told my mother that when our family left Germany in the early 1900’s and came to America, the family’s name was changed from the the more ashkenazi Jew last name Schwartz to Swartz and in an attempt to integrate ourselves into America, we ceased practicing Judaism. While I had suspected that perhaps I had Jewish heritage, none of us really knew for sure until my grandpa dropped that particular bombshell. Ever since I discovered about that aspect of my past, I’ve become fairly fascinated about discovering more about my Jewish heritage and the history of my people.
Even before I learned that I was Jewish, I had always been borderline obsessed with the Holocaust, particularly how so many otherwise good people were able to turn their backs on the torment and suffering of the millions of Jews being persecuted by Hitler’s regime. That moral conundrum has always seemed to me like something that would make fine fodder for a film, and with the major exception of Schindler’s List, I’ve never really seen a film that handles that question well. Cinema has a rich history of exploring the psychology of some of our most pressing and disturbing issues and the moral cowardice of being a silent partner in the slaughter of an entire people seems rife for artistic exploration. Well, I now have another film to join Schindler’s List in that company as one of the finest examinations of humanity’s darkest hour that I’ve ever seen. 1965’s The Shop on Main Street is one of the most intellectually engaging and important films that I’ve watched for this blog that is only marred by two fantasy sequences that seemingly serve no purpose in the film.
Set against the prelude to the “final solution” to the Jewish problem in Nazi controlled nations (specifically the former nation of Czechoslovakia in this film), a simple minded but mostly good natured Czech carpenter, Tony Brtko (Jozef Kroner) is named the Aryan manager of a local textile shop run an elderly Jewish woman, Rosalie Lautmann (Ida Kaminska). Jews have been stripped out of their rights to own or run their business and Aryans have been placed in control. However, Rosalie is so old, deaf, and blind that she is practically oblivious to the events surrounding her and thinks Tony is just helping her with the shop out of the goodness of his heart. After failing to parlay his true intentions to Rosalie, Tony simply allows her to believe things are the same and she’s still in charge while he sets himself to doing repairs around the shop. As he spends more time with Rosalie and other members of the Jewish community of the town, Tony becomes more and more attached to Rosalie and when the time finally comes where the Jews are being shipped to the concentration camps, he has to decide between his own self-interests or the life and safety of the woman whose livelihood he was meant to steal.
The performances from the two leads sell the entire picture. Ida Kaminska was nominated for an Oscar for her performance which is a fairly rare occurrence for foreign language roles. I can only think of a handful of times that has happened. It’s totally deserved though. She seems so willfully oblivious the entire film that when she finally realizes what is really happening, her terror is contagious. However, the real heart of the film was Jozef Kroner’s Tony because his performance carried the entire theme of the film which is one man falling under the weight of the fascist regime. He’s likeable and well done, but when he’s faced with his choices, you can see all of the strain and frustration written over every line in his face. It’s one of the most morally ambiguous roles that I can remember for a good long time, and had Kroner played Tony as too heroic or too cowardly, it would never have worked. Instead what you get is a man faced against insurmountable odds who eventually cracks under the pressure.
Tony has to be one of the most interesting film protagonists that I have seen in years. You can never really know a man’s character until it is tested, and had the Fascists never taken control of his village, Tony would have lived his life as a good and honest man. Ultimately, as much as I want to blame him for his actions during this film, he was one man against an army and ideology that was taking over Europe. He had an opportunity to commit at least one heroic act, but he was struck with cowardice at the end and just fed more tragedy to the flames. He could have almost been a character in a Shakespearean play because of how much tragedy was written into nearly every second of the last act of the film.
I actually thought the film was incredibly slow when it first started out, but all of that development and attachment building was necessary for the film’s final acts to contain all of the power that they ultimately bore. The pay off of the film wouldn’t have meant nearly as much if you hadn’t found yourself so thoroughly lost in this world. This is now the second best foreign film that I’ve watched for this blog, only slightly behind Fellini Satyricon. This would have gotten an A+ had it not been for the two fantasies towards the end that made no sense to me. Right behind this film is Let the Right One In. If you have any interest in foreign cinema, this is a no brainer. If you are interested in the sort of moral questions this film poses, once again, it’s an easy sell. Honestly, I think everyone should give this one a try. It might not necessarily be for you, but you should at least see if it is. This is fantastic film-making at work.
Final Score: A