Every now and again you get a chance to see something unusual, whether it’s a forgotten old film, or an impossible indie film from out of nowhere, or just a screening of a film with the cast and crew. For reasons I can’t explain, our local theater aired a single showing of the Academy Award winning 1965 Czech flick The Shop On Main Street, replete with a discussion afterwards by Ivan Passer (Cutter’s Way, Creator), a Czech director who emigrated to our fair country to ply his trade.
We didn’t stay for that. My schedule rearranging required me to rush off as soon as the end credits started.
The hero of our story is a carpenter named Tono, who’s fallen on lean times because he’s not a party man. And by “party man”, I mean “Nazi”. His brother (or is it brother-in-law? the subtitles have both him and his wife referring to him as brother-in-law) is the head of the local Czech Nazi club, and has not hooked up Tono with any work like, say, building the big ol’ monument to Czech fascism in the town square.
Tono is not especially noble, really. His main objection to fascism is that he’s not a joiner and he doesn’t like being told what to do, and he kind of thinks they’re all jackasses. He’s decent, however, and that’s sort of a serious liability at this point in WWII Czechoslovakia.
Unfortunately, Tono is also what we might call today a “low information voter”, who probably wouldn’t vote, to boot. So, when his wife nags him into reconnecting with brother-in-law, and a drunken night results in him being put in possession of a shop formerly owned by a Jewish widow, he doesn’t really think through the implications.
And there are oh-so-many implications.
The first thing that comes up is that the 78-year-old widow (her husband died in WWI) doesn’t understand why he’s there. She’s sort of deaf (or pretending) and can’t see well enough (or pretending) to read the contract, and she’s also sort of daft (or pretending). So, since he isn’t a bully, he just pretends he’s her helper instead.
And, actually, he is her helper, cleaning and fixing up the place while she orders him around and shoos him from behind the counter. Occasionally he’ll give him a very small amount of money—not nearly enough to satisfy his wife.
Which brings up the second point: Rather than helping him out, his dear brother and fellow party members basically have played him for a chump. Sure, he got a shop for free, but what shop is it? The button shop. A notions store. Something that makes no money.
However, his decency does not go unnoticed by the Jewish community who essentially pays him for not throwing the old widow out of her shop and home. And so, for a moment, the wife is happy.
The remarkable thing about this is, it’s essentially a humorous slice-of-life type picture, only with the spectre of Nazi-ism hanging over it all.
Of course, it stops being funny when the Nazis move to the forefront. Here again we see Tono with no real concept of what he’s dealing with, and worried about the money he might have to forgo, and then further worried that he’s been played for an even bigger chump, by being set up to be a “jew lover"—a fate worse than being an actual Jews, he’s been reassured many times.
There’s a genuineness to it, this willingness of the filmmakers to show the struggle a person might really go through if put into Tono’s position. (I’m guessing the Communists had managed to divorce themselves sufficiently from the Fascists at this point that they didn’t see an anti-Nazi movie as a threat.) It’s at turns harrowing and heartbreaking.
This occasionally turns up on TCM, I think, or you can buy the Criterion discs, but it doesn’t appear to be online anywhere. Well worth watching. (100/94 on RT, with a rather small critic/audience sampling.)