mon 20/05/2024

DVD: The Shop on the High Street | reviews, news & interviews

DVD: The Shop on the High Street

DVD: The Shop on the High Street

Peerless Slovak Holocaust drama brings comedy into tragic context

Unlikley protector: Tóno (Jozef Kroner, right) struggles to save elderly Jewish widow Rozalie (Idá Kaminská)

There will surely be no end to the debate as to how any work of art can approach treating the Holocaust, and its depiction in cinema, with the great immediacy of that form, has always been especially problematic.

Ján Kadár and Elmar Klos’s 1965 film The Shop on the High Street (Obchod na korze) certainly stands in the very first rank of such attempts, its depiction of how a civilian population becomes complicit in treatment of outsiders remaining as insightful and necessary today as ever.

Kadár and Klos’s film achieves that rarest thing, the convincing introduction of elements of comedy into a context where it might seem impossible, heightening rather than diminishing the overall emotional effect. At its heart is the interrelationship between a simple Slovak carpenter, “Tóno” Brtko (Jozef Kroner), and the elderly Jewish widow Rozalie (Idá Kaminská) which develops when the former is appointed “Ayran controller” of the small haberdashery store that she owns, which gives the film its title.

It stands out for the dynamic of its central acting pair

Rozalie’s age and deafness mean that she simply cannot comprehend that the Slovak has been appointed essentially to appropriate her business, and Tóno becomes easily acquiescent in maintaining her ignorance of the real situation. Set in 1942, the film catches the abrupt transition from a time when the Jews were still allowed to live almost as before to the moment of their despatch to the concentration camps. Tóno’s final agonies in his attempts to save his unlikely charge bring home the degree to which his society has totally ignored what has been happening until it is too late.  

The depiction of the smug self-interest of the local population, driven on by the Hlinka Guard – the local equivalent of the SS in the nominally independent Slovak republic – is unsparing, not least in the portrayal of Tóno’s wife and immediate family: his brother-in-law has become a senior figure in the new regime, and sees getting rich from anti-Jewish activity as a “duty to God, the Fuhrer, and the Republic” (Kroner with František Zvarík, pictured below). The fact that such social satire, as well as the essentially innocent, almost “slacker” figure of Tóno, is familiar in Czechoslovak culture makes its context here all the more unsettling.   

Winner of the 1965 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, the film put a new generation of Czechoslovakian cinema on the international map, even if Kadár and Klos were older than the directors whose names we associate today with the Czech New Wave, and The Shop on the High Street looks quite traditional in form by comparison with other work from the time. Indeed, its harking back to images of small-town life – complete with the brass band that makes up part of composer Zdeněk Liška’s remarkable score – is all the more powerful for the way in which we see reality subverting such stereotypes.         

It stands out for the dynamic of its central acting pair, the indecision of Kroner’s character set against the almost otherworldly innocence of Kaminská (the actress was actually Polish, and had been a legend of Yiddish theatre: nominated separately in 1966 for Best Actress, she lost to Elizabeth Taylor in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?).

This Second Run release presents a new 2K restoration, giving new crispness to the images, and is accompanied by an exemplary 40-minute filmed appreciation by film historian Michael Brooke that is brisk and enthusiastic, and a booklet essay by film expert Peter Hames. Brooke reminds us that The Shop on the High Street is definitely a Slovak rather than Czech film, and gives fascinating historical context on the period in which it is set in that country.

The film achieves that rarest thing of all, the convincing introduction of elements of comedy into a context where it might seem impossible


Editor Rating: 
Average: 5 (1 vote)

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