The Shop on Main Street
When I left Texas to attend Michigan State I joined the film society and took film courses. I devoured these films, stuff that never made it to Port Arthur or Beaumont, Texas. Here was a film from Czechoslovakia, of all places. (Now just Slovakia.) I knew of the Holocaust, though not many details about it. And I have just scanned the IMDb and found that, as I suspected, there were basically no American movies made about it before 1965. These days, of course, we have Holocaust movies by the (excuse the expression) carload, but back then, no. Maybe it was all still too horrifically fresh, or maybe there weren’t many writers and directors willing to tackle such an awful subject. (Sidney Lumet and Rod Steiger had made The Pawnbroker in 1964, but that one had not yet wrenched my guts out.) So this stark black and white masterpiece (Oscar for Best Foreign Film, and deserved it) took me unaware. I watched the fascist state in operation, and to this day, I am murderously opposed to anything that has even the faintest whiff of totalitarianism, and I include the present-day Republican Party in my list of fascists.
The story is of Anton (Ján Kadár), a Czech man who is awarded a little button shop owned by an old Jewish woman. Only Aryans can own property now. But she is a bit addled, and almost deaf, so she doesn’t get that he is her boss and not her bumbling employee. The local Jews approach him and tell him that, far from a gold mine, the shop is not making any money, and has very little stock. But they will pay him money every week if he will just pretend to be the boss. Anton is not a very forceful man, so he goes along with them. But eventually the Jews are rounded up and taken away to “work camps,” and he can’t get it across to her that she has to pack up and go. Anton discovers that, though he would like to protect her, he is afraid, he is no hero. The ending is quite emotional, and I won’t reveal it.
This movie holds up well. Just as relevant today as when it was made. It made me confront a lot of things. At the time, I remember thinking that the hero was, in fact, a coward, but I’ve learned a lot since then. One thing I’ve learned is that we are not all cut out to be Miep Gies, who sheltered Anne Frank. Sorry, we’re just not. I have never had to find out if I’m brave in that way, my moral courage has never been sternly tested, and please, may it come to pass that I never have to find out how I’d respond.
The old lady is played by Ida Kamińska, who was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar. There was no way she was going to win against the very strong competition from Lynn Redgrave, Vanessa Redgrave, Anouk Aimee, and Elizabeth Taylor, but even being nominated for a film that very few American ever saw was pretty amazing. She was a very big deal in the Yiddish theater in Poland, called the Mother of the Jewish Stage. She hopped all over the world to avoid Hitler, living in various places in the USSR, returning to Poland after the war, then moved to Israel and finally to the US. A formidable figure, who turns in a stellar performance here.