The Shop on the High Street Review
It's odd to imagine that there would be a significant swath of people who actively seek out films about the Holocaust, but they surely must exist. For years these films continue to be made and often celebrated despite the inherent difficulty of the subject matter. Just last year the Hungarian picture Son of Saul was awarded the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival and the Foreign Language Oscar. These can be difficult watches, to put it mildly, and it seems curious that so often viewers willingly choose to sit for a couple of hours to revisit something with such a negative emotional charge. Rarely, I think, do these movies truly stick with us. In the moment they can be effective but often Holocaust films mentally join together as further extensions of the atrocities most of us already know through books and other movies. It's only the truly exceptional entries that transcend what is an uncomfortable subgenre to become essential and vital cinema shared by generations. Perhaps nothing has done so quite as memorably as The Shop on the High Street (Obchod na korze).
Directed by the team of Ján Kadár and Elmar Klos, the 1965 Czechoslovakian film was its country's first Oscar winner in the Foreign Language category. It has persisted for over fifty years now as something tempered perfectly to avoid the manipulative traps found elsewhere. Once seen it is, without hesitation, unforgettable in its depiction of the anti-semitism faced by Jews as well as the potential for humanity in even the most inhumane of places. I don't think it's at all a stretch to call this film among the greatest of its kind. The 1998 poll of Czech film critics had The Shop on the High Street as the second greatest film in the country's history, behind only Marketa Lazarova.
The crux of the story is that a Slovak man, a carpenter named Tóno, has been assigned as the Aryan controller of an elderly Jewish widow's small shop by his brother-in-law. The woman, Rozália, is too deaf to really understand him when he attempts to break the news that he's basically taking her store out from under her, causing another, non-Jewish, man to intervene by telling the woman Tóno is there as her new assistant. The middle portion, running an hour or so, is dominated by this dynamic. The initial half hour establishes Tóno and his wife alongside her brother, a member of the Hlinka Guard, while the final half hour is a nightmarish reality of what Jews even in this small Slovak town would have faced in 1942.
Something that comes to mind repeatedly about The Shop on the High Street is how remarkably full of a film it is. It's tempting to approach it with hesitation given the two hours plus running time, the difficult subject matter, and, for some, even the fact that it's a black and white foreign language film released over fifty years ago. But there's a crackling vitality to what's on screen, with layer upon layer of opportunity for reflection about things both universal and very specific. When Tóno and his brother-in-law are outside talking early on, the latter says something to the effect of gaining wealth being one's "duty to God, the Fuhrer, and the Republic" as if the three entities are somehow connected or on similar footing. If this is the attitude informing the small town powers that be then we're left with almost boundless philosophical questions. Where does duty really even belong in this conversation, and what role can we assign to the individual in the context of community?
The idea that the townspeople could be complicit as the Jews were stripped of their rights and their businesses before finally being rounded up and forced out of town remains difficult to comprehend, particularly since this all occurs under the watch of the Hlinka Guard, not the Gestapo or other Nazis. The film brilliantly underplays almost every aspect of these maddening realities. With Tóno, afraid of being seen as a Jew lover like the unfortunate Mr. Kuchar, as our de facto guide there's less a sense of righteousness than simple-minded anxiety not privy to the bigger picture. His wife wants wealth but he's a carpenter by trade so riches never seem like the priority. When it's realized that the shop he's effectively been given is full of mostly empty boxes, with the occasional button here and there, it changes little for him.
Both Jozef Kroner, as Tóno, and Ida Kaminska, playing Rozália, are terrific in their roles. Kaminska earned an Oscar nomination for the movie, known in the U.S. as The Shop on Main Street, a year after its win in the foreign language film category. She's exceptional at toeing the line between heartbreaking and injecting bittersweet comedic elements to the character. It's that willingness to embrace the lighter side, the low-key Czechoslovakian absurdism found elsewhere in the country's New Wave era, that especially resonates. We get that somewhat, too, in the score by Zdenek Liska, with its alternating between brass band exuberance and more mournful violins. A long-legged bird is even briefly shown to mimic a bow crossing the latter instrument in a particularly striking piece of imagery that is somewhat apropos of nothing. Short fantasy sequences, including at the very end, might be the best illustration of this willingness to separate from the reality and seriousness of the subject matter, conjuring an almost Borzagian coda out of thin air.
Some films, even great ones, are tough to watch and even more difficult to give repeat viewings. The Shop on the High Street is simply not one of those. It provides a meaningful, emotion-ticking experience. From that first, leisurely-paced half hour in which we meet Tóno and witness his exuberant, drunken Hitler impression, to the tense final act, it's a seminal take on one of the worst periods in modern history.
Second Run makes The Shop on the High Street its third Blu-ray release. The region-free disc comes in a transparent case with a booklet, and marks the world premiere of the film on Blu-ray.
Many, including this reviewer, were first introduced to the film via the Criterion Collection's DVD some years ago. I don't believe any extensive restoration has been done since that edition, and the most notable difference aside from the improved resolution is an increased brightness on the Blu-ray. Some speckles of damage and vertical scratches remain visible. We're left with a solid transfer of a film that simply looks like it hasn't undergone an extensive restoration. Film grain remains and it's an overall positive viewing experience to be had from this Blu-ray. It's in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio. I'd much prefer having a Blu-ray version than only a DVD one.
Audio is a Slovak language LPCM mono track, with some Yiddish sprinkled in at times. It's reasonably fine, with scratches and static only becoming prevalent near the end of the movie. English subtitles are optional and white in color.
A major addition, especially considering the lack of extras on the Criterion version, is Michael Brooke's filmed appreciation (40:01) which offers a generous amount of information on the film. Few stones are left unturned by Brooke. Supplementing that is an essay by Peter Hames in the 20-page booklet. Add in a look at the original U.S. press book available for viewing on the disc and you have a nice, complete package that's probably among the best Second Run has ever done.