The creeping grip of fascism has been a regular source of inspiration for filmmakers for decades, both in explicit reference to the Second World War and in more nuanced portrayals of corruptive ideology. It could be argued that the current political climate, across Europe and in the USA, illustrates with alarming perspicuity the continued urgency of such work. In a world of condoned bigotry and the rise of right wing groups, the slippery slope of quiet acceptance that ensnares Tóno (Josef Kroner) in Ján Kadár and Elmar Klos’ The Shop on the High Street is of lamentable but undeniably pertinence.
Tóno is an everyman living in the unpleasant milieu of a small Slovak town in 1942. This is post-Slovak autonomy, when Vojtech Tuka was prime minister and his government had just agreed to comply with the Nazi’s Nuremberg Race Laws; Aryanisation is to be enforced by the paramilitary group, the Hlinka Guard. One of the officials in the local chapter is Tóno’s brother-in-law, Kolkocky (Frantisek Zvarík), who wrangles it that Tóno will be the new Aryan Controller of a haberdashery run by the aged Jewish widow, Mrs. Lautmannova (Ida Kaminska). Tóno is a small man; both in ambition and action. A carpenter by trade, he seems to have little aspirations for social climbing and has already rejected the opportunity to join the Hlinka Guard himself, but his feelings towards the Jews seem more ambivalent than kind.
Lautmannova keeps confusing his surname, Brtko, with the word ‘ktrko’ or ‘mole’. This is apt both for his surreptitious attempts to protect Lautmannova and more damningly, his wish to remain out of sight, untroubled by the stomping jackboots overhead. In the climactic scenes, as the mass transport of the town’s Jewish community begins, Tóno finds himself trapped both morally and physically between the anti-Semitic officialdom outside the shop window and the safe, Jewish inclusion represented by the back room. Lautmannova, for her part, remains oblivious to what is happening in the wider world – her failing eyesight, hearing and possibly mental faculties making it easier to retreat into her past.
Kaminska is perfect as Lautmannova, endearing as her friendship with Tóno grows without her ever suspecting his real reason for being in her shop, believing him to be her new assistant. In his kindness he gives up trying to explain the situation to her, shielding her but also pocketing a salary paid for by the Jewish community. It’s not enough for his wife, though, who exemplifies simmering anti-Semitic resentment with her continued chiding that Tóno is yet to find Lautmannova’s stashed gold and jewellery. In reality, Tóno never seems especially interested in looking; Kadár and Klos excel in damning him through his lack of action and his cowardice. The tragedy and the irresistible power, of the piece come in minor moments, not through speechifying. They come in every opportunity that Tóno has to stand up, instead of watching idly as a friend, Kuchár is beaten and paraded as a ‘Jew-lover’.
The banality of the growing evil are echoed by the film’s relatively conventional style. The only real visual flourishes come via moments in which Tóno tries to drink away his conscience or retreats into daydreams in which he and Lautmannova ride, carefree in a carriage. Despite not being made by the more innovative and experimental young directors most commonly associated with the Czech New Wave, when The Shop on the High Street won the Best Foreign Language Oscar in 1965 it shot the region’s cinema into the western consciousness. A film could hardly have been more worthy and could hardly resonate more.
Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson