Thursday, June 15, 2006

The Shop on Main Street (1965)

The more Czech New Wave I see, the more I like. (This is part of the New Wave, right?) What I've seen thus far shares a sensibility I appreciate -- the idea of desperate laughter in the face of horror, at least until the horror overwhelms. It's really such a sucker's approach, but it gets me everytime. (See also: my enthusiasm for Little Murders, Devils on the Doorstep, Underground, the novel Catch-22, etc.) This film, set during WWII, begins as a caustic comedy about an itinerant carpenter, with a wonderful and boisterous drunken dinner-party scene that sets up the film's main conflict. This scene is entertaining, but it's also important, as it sets up Tony Brtko's confusion about the times, his inability to understand how to proceed in such times and his perceptions of inferiority. (His wife's characterization of him as "a good-for-nothing loafer" contrasts mightily with his terming of his brother, a Nazi official, as "the local God." It's about power, but more to the point, it's about confidence.) Directors Jan Kadar and Elmar Klos, in a touch that may or may not be intentional but which I liked anyway, slyly allude to the direction their story will eventually take when they have Tony (and the camera) drunkenly staring through a highball glass (so we're going through the looking glass, eh?). Once Tony takes over the Jewish store assigned to him by his brother (monetary self-interest as "serving the country"?), the film then shifts into light whimsy with a dash of absurdism borne of incomprehension (Ms. Lautmann, the old Jewish woman who owns the repossessed store, is hard of hearing). It's pleasant, but the gathering storm is always in the background (the dog tax, for example) and the film's ironies get progressively darker. This continues until the film's last segment, in which the background erupts into the foreground, panic and desperation replace the light tone and laughs fall by the wayside. It's all fun and games until they come for you, and while one can struggle against inhumanity, there are times when that struggle comes too late to avoid being swallowed by the darkness. (The futility of Tony's final standing-up against his venal wife plays this up nicely.) Acting stellar on all counts, direction careful and assured, climax guaranteed to reduce all viewers to rubble; all in all, this thing's damn good. What's next, Czechoslovakia? (Closely Watched Trains, I believe.)

Grade: A-


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