..

THE SHOP ON MAIN STREET

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Ida Kaminska, Josef Kroner
Directors:  Jan Kadar, Elmar Klos
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Video:  Full Frame 1.33:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  Theatrical Trailer
Length:  125 Minutes
Release Date:  September 18, 2001

“To have a peaceful heart, my boy…that is a gift from God.”

Film ****

The Shop on Main Street is an exemplary film, modest in presentation but bold in statement, about human strength and frailties under the direst of conditions.  It deals with the subject of the holocaust, as co-director Jan Kadar explained, not by telling the story of six million Jews, but of only one.

That one is elderly shopkeeper Rozalie Lautmann (Kaminska), a sweet, nearly deaf and graciously naïve woman whose fate becomes hopelessly intertwined with that of Gentile Tono Brtko (Kroner).  With the advance of the Nazis into their native land, Jews are no longer allowed to own businesses.  Their properties are unceremoniously seized one at a time, and given over to selected Aryans.

With the help of his Fascist brother-in-law, Tono finds himself the new owner of the button shop owned by Mrs. Lautmann.  It seems like a good deal at first, as the struggling Tono had hardly been able to make ends meet as a carpenter.  However, it turns out that Mrs. Lautmann has NOT made her living by selling buttons, but by the charity of the Jews in her neighborhood, who take up weekly alms to support her.

To make matters more complicated, the decent but ineffectual Tono can’t quite explain to the sweet old lady that her shop is no longer hers.  (Come to think of it, how does one explain to another person that everything you’ve made is now gone just because of who you are?)  Tono finds himself in the awkward position of playing assistant to Mrs. Lautmann, while trying to save face before his family that it’s really the other way around.

The story unfolds with much warmth and humor, centered on these two likable characters.  A local Gentile, sympathetic to the Jewish dilemma, offers to collect for Tono a weekly wage to help him save face.  As fate would have it, this kind man is the first to be made an example of under the Nazi regime as a “Jew lover”, a stigma the invaders consider worst of all.  It’s not an impression lost on Tono.

Finally, when the Jews are being rounded up for the camps, Tono has a critical decision to make…does he risk his own neck to save the elderly Mrs. Lautmann, who still doesn’t have a clue as to what’s going on in their town, or does he hand her over?  Their final day together is long and heartbreaking, as Tono’s knowledge of right wrestles with his inherent cowardice.  The finale is unforgettable…one of the most intense studies in moral crises ever seen.

The film is anchored by two superb performances.  As Mrs. Lautmann, Ida Kaminska is like a favorite grandmother; warm and endearing, and the embodiment of innocence.  Josef Kroner, as Tono, has the film’s most difficult role.  His face is alive with moral anguish as he struggles with a decision that will have far reaching consequences either way.

Directors Jan Kadar and Elmar Klos instilled their picture with an almost disarming sense of modesty…they are completely content to let their characters and their story dominate their movie up to a certain point, so that you almost forget you’re watching a film.  But as the tale marches on toward its inevitable date with destiny, the movie becomes increasingly cinematic.  Lighting and shadows come into greater play, and seem to say a lot about the darkening scenario that Tono and Mrs. Lautmann find themselves trapped in.  It’s a highly effective use of both style and restraint that maximizes the emotional impact.

The Shop on Main Street earned a Best Foreign Film Oscar from the Academy Awards in 1965, and very deservedly so.  It is a true masterpiece of comedy, tragedy, and emotional turmoil; of crises of conscience, and of ordinary people caught up in extraordinary circumstances.

Video ***

This is a quality offering from Criterion…the black and white photography is very well rendered, with sharpness and clarity throughout, and only occasional markings of spots or scratches here and there to proclaim the age of the film.

Audio ***

Though a simple one-channel audio mix, I was impressed at the clarity of the sound, especially during the quieter moments:  I never noticed any noise interfering with the presentation, which is rare for an older picture.  There is some effective use of dynamics near the end to punctuate the drama, and these, too, are rendered with integrity and clarity.

Features *

Only a trailer.

Summary:

The Shop on Main Street is an unforgettable masterpiece, and a true must-see for any lovers of cinema.  Criterion scores once again by bringing an important classic film to DVD with a quality presentation to enhance the enjoyment.  If you treat yourself to this one, you won’t regret it.