Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Jan Kadar and Elmar Klos, The Shop on Main Street, 1966

Jan Kadar and Elmar Klos, The Shop on Main Street
Czechoslovakia, (1966).

Jan Kadar and Elmar Klos’ The Shop on Main Street is an amazingly sad portrayal of the disasters that the oppressions of an unjust, murderous, totalitarian regime can effect on individuals. The film is very much about individuals and there is a great premium and emphasis placed on character development. It is about individuals caught in the forcing and uncontrollable current of history. The film is beautiful and beautifully photographed. It deals with weighty themes and represents a powerful vision of tragedy.
The protagonist, Antonin Brtko, at the beginning of the film is a common citizen, most preoccupied with trying to make life easier and not too much interested in matters that don’t directly affect him. His biggest worries at the onset of the film are his nagging wife and his dog who follows him everywhere. His attitude is one of passivity, although it is revealed in degrees that he is against the war. The spectator later learns that he had refused to join the Nazi presence with his brother-in-law. It seems that the brother-in-law, Imro, had persuaded him to join but Brtko refused and has since, but not necessarily as a result, hated Imro profoundly. One of the first scenes of the film has Brtko asking his wife if she has heard about all the ships that had been recently sunk and all the soldiers that died, but he can’t seem to remember from which side the casualties were. He is obviously concerned, albeit in some passing sense, with the war but not involved or interested enough to remember what most might consider the most important facts about the casualties. Likewise, one wonders whether his refusal to join with Imro was more of a moral stand or a resistance to extra work. Brtko seems in these ways similar to Jiri Menzel’s character Milos from Closely Watched Trains. Both are a bit lazy and both are quite passive and often disinterested. The more significant similarity between the two is that in each film they are irreparably changed and overwhelmed by the issues and circumstances that exist out of their control and that are, ultimately, larger than either of their individual lives. They are each subsumed by the pull and current of history. However, in Shop on Main Street the effect is individualized and felt far more personally. Whereas in Menzel’s film, the jolt of reality at its finale does not really change the carefree sentiment of the film as a whole, in Shop on Main Street the tragedy is felt deeply and the mood changes dramatically.
The change in the character of Brtko begins to take its grip when his brother-in-law gives him a position as Arian Manager of a Jewish store owned by Rosalie Lautmann. Immediately upon her introduction it is evident that Lautmann is an amazingly sweet and genuinely good natured person. The result is that Brtko can’t tell her the real reason that he has come to work with her, he instead lets her go on believing that it is her store and that he is only helping. Lautmann takes him in with open arms as though he were her own child. Brtko becomes a part of the Jewish community, he makes friends and business arrangements while letting his greed stricken, opportunist, nagging wife believe that he as become a powerful, rich Arian overseer.
Lautmann is always telling Brtko of herself, her family and her past. She tells him stories of her late husband and of her family who never write. She is lonely, quite literally all alone. Brtko is also much the same, considering that he all but hates his life at home. The two get along famously, and not in the least for the lack they share, but also in part because they are both genuinely sad but good hearted people regardless of how different they might have been before meeting. Lautmann gives Brtko her husband’s suit and hat and she cooks for him nearly everyday despite her arthritis and Brtko, as a former carpenter fixes and cleans her furniture while she waits on customers.
Like the ever growing so-called Tower of Babylon in the town’s center, which Brtko passes each day with increasing anxiety, so grows the tension among the people in the town and within Brtko himself. The imposing tower, being built since the film’s beginning, is like a prefiguration of the horror to come. On the morning when the Nazis march into the town’s square to “round up” the Jews to, as they say, “cleanse the town” one feels sick knowing, with hindsight, the greater historical context. The fact that the film so dearly and closely portratys the bond between Brtko and Mrs. Lautmann, and in that she is made so sweet, personalizes and individualizes the horror of the Nazi oppression in a way that few films are capable. Lautmann, as old as she is, hardly is even aware that there is a war in the first place, she couldn’t even understand “Arian Manager,” her age inspired ignorance makes Brtko and the spectator all the sadder and more afraid for her and her possible fate. Shots like when Brtko is nervously rushing all about town to find Mrs. Lautmann and he passes a long line of marching Nazis are composed ingeniously. Brtko’s face takes up half of the entire frame as he moves straight to the left, and, in the background, the line of Nazis marches upward toward the right. The composition creates great dynamism in the contrast between the close up on Brtko’s individual face moving one way while the long line of anonymous soldiers moves, in the background, into the opposite direction, each in diagonals. A shot like this emphasizes Brtko’s psychology because it is a close-up but also because it is from one of the most psychologically rattling scenes of the film. It also shows the strong contrast between Brtko’s concern and the Nazi intention. The opposing diagonals also visually manifest the internal tension and conflicting sentiments within Brtko himself in that he wants to protect and save Mrs. Lautmann and at the same time knows that they will kill him for aiding her if he is found out.
At its tragic climax, the last few scenes of the film show the psychological torment that the fear the Nazis inspired in people could have on individuals. The Nazi terror is so huge that without ever even entering the shop, horror ensues nonetheless. With the deaths of both protagonists the end of The Shop on Main Street is a representation of the horror of war without the depiction of war. It is an incredibly powerful portrayal of injustice and fear.

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