The Prague Spring allowed Czech film makers to discuss the issues and ask the questions they would never have been permitted to at any other time. Much like The Cremator (previously reviewed), The Shop on Main Street considers the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia and how the passivity and complicity of the population maintained it. Kadar explains just how simple it would have been to just go along with the momentum of things, to remain a bystander, but not everyone can remain impassive; sometimes you have to make a stand.
The first half of the film works almost as a farce. Antonin Brtko (Josef Kroner) is a poor carpenter, who just wants a simple and easy life - walking his dog and remaining apolitical and free from the growing horror around him of the Nazi occupation. His wife harasses him for never earning enough and for not sharing the ambition of his brother who has thrown his lot in with the Nazis and forms part of the Fascist guard that is running things. His brother changes Antonin's fortunes, by arranging for him to become "Aryan controller" for a textile shop run by a frail and senile Jewish woman, Mrs Lautmann (Ida Kaminska). Much humour derives from their misunderstandings - she is unaware of the war or the Nazi occupation. Soon though, events take a much darker, and ultimately tragic turn.
The second half of the film charts Antonin's change from apolitical bystander to someone who has to make a stand. Though weak willed, he resists Nazism, and risks becoming the "Jew lover" his brother warns him is a worse crime than being a Jew itself. He does all he can to ensure Mrs Lautmann is not caught up in trouble, even when other Jews in the community are beaten and arrested. He opens the shop on Saturdays, and ultimately attempts to hide her when the Nazis ominously call names of Jews being deported to labour camps.
Filmed and set in Slovakia, which aligned itself pretty comfortably with the Nazis, The Shop on Main Street considers just how easy it is for people to become complicit with totalitarian regimes. Antonin's wife is happy because he is earning more money, yet only he considers the moral implications of this, and only he has the backbone to try to do something about it. If one considers it an allegory that might be applied to ANY dictatorship, then this film could only have been made during the Prague Spring, the few years of artistic freedom in the 60s. The film was banned shortly after the Soviets installed order again.
Wonderfully acted by the two leads and posing many ethical questions, The Shop on Main Street is needless to say, another unqualified masterpiece from the Czech New Wave. 4.5/5