1965. Starring Ida Kaminska and Jozef Kroner. Directed by Jan Kadar and Elmar Klos.
The banality of evil is truly underrated. And the desperation and denial of human beings in challenging times remains endlessly fascinating, even when portrayed with some slapstick.
In Shop on Main Street, there is plenty of desperation and denial, and evil is gathering strength every day. Antony (Jozef Kroner) likes the simple things in life, wandering around with his dog, doing the occasional carpentry job and a drink now and then. His wife complains about his idleness, his lack of ambition — why can’t he be more like his brother-in-law, empowered as a local authority for the Nazis. He has money, food and power, and no lack of ambition. Unable to earn Antony’s allegiance, the brother-in-law has arranged to install Antony as the “Aryan manager” of an old woman’s button-and-fabric shop. Now it’s up to him to become a rich man.
Antony is henpecked, clumsy and lazy — the perfect manager for the incoming regime. But the appointment may be a trick played on him. The store has almost no inventory, the Jewish widow he is to lord over (Ida Kaminska as Mrs. Lautmann) is nearly deaf, and the work isn’t really fitting for a man. But the daily requirements of the shop keep him away from the wife, and the money provided by the local Jews (paid mostly to benefit the widow) keeps Antony out of the doghouse.
Then a curious thing happens. Antony is unable to explain that he is the new owner of the shop, so Mrs. Lautmann takes him on as an assistant. He spends most of his time restoring her furniture, and she dotes on him like a son, giving him her late husband’s suits and cooking meals for him. He becomes happier, regains his self-respect and comes to adore her gentleness and generosity. But outside the shop, the local fascists are building a monument to their new nationalistic sickness. There have also been rumors of deportation of the town’s Jewish citizens.
In Schindler’s List, the lead character is an opportunistic neutral who, when faced with the horrors of the Nazi cowards, risks his own life to save as many lives as possible. In Shop on Main Street, the opportunistic neutral tries to save one life, but can’t decide whether it should be the widow’s life or his own. As the fascists move ahead with their plans, Antony has to reveal the truth to Mrs. Lautmann, and hide her from the danger outside.
As Antony, Jozef Kroner transforms from a sweaty weakling of a man to a decent human being and back again. Ida Kaminska’s Rozalie Lautmann plays the sweet old lady, reverently observant of the sabbath but unaware of the hatred growing in her neighbors. The ending was devastating the first time I saw the film; it wasn’t much easier the second time. But hopefully, this film will teach us to put a flame to any more monuments to hate before they’re fully built.