Ján Kadár and Elmar Klos: The Shop on Main Street (Obchod na korze), 1965

reviewed by Steven Banovac © 2005

The Shop on Main Street, which received the first Oscar for both Slovak and Czech filmmaking, is a deeply affecting film set in a small Slovak town during the height of Nazi power in Germany and Europe. It was filmed on location in Sabinov, eastern Slovakia, with many local extras, but could easily be the story of any Central European town during World War II. The year is 1942, and Hitler’s Third Reich has conquered nearly the entire European continent through an efficient use of brute force. Totalitarian puppet governments, manipulated from Berlin, were forcibly established for those countries not absorbed into Germany’s newly enlarged borders. Unoccupied France (Vichy), Croatia, and Slovakia were but several of these German-controlled satellite states, where Nazi laws and statutes were firmly enforced. The persecution and extermination of Jews was carried out just as enthusiastically by many of these German allies as they were in the Third Reich itself. The Shop on Main Street deals with these anti-Semitic laws in Slovakia and addresses the moral dilemmas brought about by their implementation.

The film opens with a shot of a white stork flying to its chimney-top nest. Jubilant chords from a brass polka band accompany the opening images, and soon the stork appears to stamp its legs in sync with the “oompah” beat. The viewer assumes that it is a Sunday, as the camera tracks the town’s residents pompously parading down the main street below, dressed in all their finery. The film immediately establishes a sardonically wry and distinctly "Mitteleuropean" tone, differentiating it from other World War II-themed films, with their gung-ho patriotism and propagandistic agendas. The filmmakers insert another example of whimsy in these early scenes: a train loaded with guns and munitions passes in front of the film’s main character, Tono Brtko (Jozef Kroner, one of Slovakia’s top actors at the time), but the last car enters the frames carrying a random man, presumably a soldier, sitting alone on a sofa. The idiosyncratic humor found in these early sequences contrasts sharply with viewers’ expectations of a war film. While this irony is initially disarming, it helps to make the film’s tragic finale all the more wrenching.

Tono is an endearingly lazy Everyman, a carpenter by trade, he is more content to drink and to avoid being hen-pecked by his nagging wife than to work. Early in the film, Tono is appointed the new “Aryan owner” of a hitherto Jewish-owned store on the town’s Main Street. His brutally officious brother-in-law, Markus Kolkotský (František Zvarík)—whose (non-existent) last name somewhat resembles a vulgar word fabricated by the filmmakers—holds an important political position in the town and is responsible for the expropriation of Jewish property. At first Tono is resentful of his brother-in-law’s charity and is loathe to accept the responsibility delegated to him. But, mainly to appease his money-hungry wife, Evelína (Hana Slivková), the next day he puts on his suit and sets off for “his” store. To his surprise, he finds an ancient, nearly deaf woman tending a tiny button shop. Mrs. Rozália Lautmann (Ida Kamińska) is the widowed Jewish proprietress of the store and in her confusion she “hires” Tono, believing he has been sent by distant relatives to assist her.


Unable to communicate his true purpose, Tono finds himself taking to the innocent, kindly old lady against his best interest, but he also finds that their new relationship is unexpectedly profitable. The town’s Jewish community recognizes Tono’s easy-going nature and, fearful that a more intolerant “Aryan” might take his place, offers him regular payments to stay. Ironically, Tono becomes closer to the Jews of the town just as he is supposed to be ostracizing them. The sheer goodness of Mrs. Lautmann prevents Tono from believing the fascist propaganda surrounding him. Mrs. Lautmann becomes a surrogate mother to him and the Jewish community a surrogate family. Tono, an irrepressible, antisocial scamp at the start of the film, blossoms into a teacher, protector, and helper as the film progresses. Essentially, Tono grows a conscience and becomes human at the precise moment when these merits are being rejected by the savage world around him.

As anti-Jewish pressure builds in the town, Tono becomes torn by conflicting emotions. His guilt, fear, greed, and confusion grow simultaneously, reflected in the film’s score which becomes increasingly harsh and forbidding. At first Tono is always followed by his loyal dog, but upon taking control of the store (or at least pretending to do so), he angrily locks his dog at home as he tries to adopt a more business-like appearance. He beats his wife for her callously greedy demands, which remind him of his own shameful self-interest. Tono’s anguish becomes visibly etched into his face as he wrestles with this crisis of conscience. The pressures on Tono are compounded even more as he witnesses the persecution of “white Jews,” the gentiles who assist and commune with Jews. There are constant reminders of Tono’s precarious and dangerous situation in the film; for example, the scene of Mrs. Lautmann and Tono enjoying some “nice, white cauliflower” that she cooked for him, is soon followed by another scene where a “white Jew,” Imrich Kuchár (Martin Hollý, Sr.), is brutally beaten and hauled away by the police for his connections with the resistance.

Eventually, trains return ominously to Tono’s small town, this time to carry the Jews to their certain deaths in concentration and labor camps. All this time, good-hearted but hopelessly guileless Mrs. Lautmann has remained unaware of the war and oblivious to the anti-Jewish measures in her town. As the town’s Jews are collected for expulsion, Tono desperately tries to prevent Mrs. Lautmann from being taken. After she refuses his futile attempts to hide her, he becomes frantic in his drunken state of fearful agitation. As the tolling of church bells reverberate through the town like death knells, Tono is confronted with a grave decision: either to save his elderly friend or to save himself. He does what seems to be a mixture of both—he pulls Mrs. Lautmann away from the store’s front windows and throws her into a pantry, locking the door. But he soon discovers that he has killed Mrs. Lautmann, and realizing that his humanity is no longer salvageable, Tono tragically takes his own life.



Ján Kadár and Elmar Klos have constructed a luminous parable that exhorts viewers to examine the tragedy of social and political intolerance. Tono and Mrs. Lautmann are both rich and fully-drawn characters whose strengths and weaknesses are unflinchingly presented onscreen (Tono’s inherent goodness and paralyzing cowardice, Mrs. Lautmann’s excessive kindness and frustrating naïveté). The film suggests that no problems between the Jewish and non-Jewish communities existed before the war, an assumption supported by Tono’s and Lautmann’s natural onscreen interaction. By realistically portraying this quirky yet wholly believable relationship, the filmmakers have expressed their belief that all humans belong to one community, regardless of race or religion, and that in attacking one segment of our society we inevitably destroy the humanity and morality within us all.

The film masterfully shifts from a light and effervescent mood to darker tones as viewers are drawn into Tono’s moral crisis. The filmmakers communicate Tono’s inner torment (especially in the film’s resolution) by darkening the action, abandoning the upbeat brass music for discordant and suspenseful strings, shooting from odd and disturbing angles, and juxtaposing images of innocence with jarring images of pain and anguish. The images of the storks nesting above Main Street recur frequently in the film; they are impartial witnesses to the man-made tragedy transpiring below. Even as the town’s Jews are being assembled for execution, the storks continue rearing their young, perhaps serving as reassuring symbols of life’s intransigence. Danko Eliáš (J. Mittelmann), although a minor character in the film, also plays an important symbolic role. Tono befriends the young Jewish boy while at Mrs. Lautmann’s store, teaching him his trade (carpentry) and acting as a mentor and father-figure. Prior to hanging himself, Tono sees the boy (who has escaped deportation) being sheltered by a neighbor, who quickly lets the boy into her home. This unguarded act of compassion and humanity further condemns Tono, who failed to extend the same compassion to old Mrs. Lautmann.

After the sobering resolution, the film ends with a gauzy dream sequence: Tono and Mrs. Lautmann dance along Main Street together in flowery and elegant costume. The fantasy sequence is a foil to the film’s harsh reality: only in unreality can Main Street again accommodate the presence of Jews, echo the buoyant rhythms of the brass band, and become a joyful stage for carefree and blissful dancing.

Steven Banovac (University of Pittsburgh)

The Shop on Main Street (Obchod na korze), 1965
Slovakia, cast, language, and location; the Czech Republic, soundstage, (Czechoslovakia)
128 minutes, B/W
Directors: Ján Kadár, Elmar Klos
Screenwriter: Ladislav Grossman (novel), Ján Kadár, Elmar Klos
Cinematography: Jaromír Novotný
Music: Zdeněk Liška
Production designer: Karel Škvor
Editing: Diana Heringová, Jaromír Janáček
Cast: Jozef Kroner, Ida Kamińska, Hana Slivková, František Zvarík, Martin Hollý Sr., Helena Zvaríková, Adam Matejka, Martin Gregor
Production: Barrandov (Prague)

Ján Kadár and Elmar Klos: The Shop on Main Street (Obchod na korze), 1965

reviewed by Steven Banovac © 2005

Updated: 21 Dec 05