The Shop on Main Street (Obchod na korze) won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film back in 1965 (when Red Beard should’ve won), and it’s not surprising that it did. Like La vita è bella a number of years later, both films employ strong tropes of melodrama in a European World War II context and feature narratives revolving around Jews. Both feature comedy at times but shoot for an ending that is more sentimental (not necessarily in a bad way) than thoughtful. Both have elements in them that are slightly incredible (in the literal sense). In The Shop on Main Street, the woman shop owner (or so she thinks) is quite deaf – not so deaf that she can’t somehow maintain a shop (with minimal help from the protagonist Jozef) but too deaf ever to begin to grasp the events surrounding and deeply affecting her in the Nazi-occupied Slovak State. Granted, neighbors and rabbis swing by to help, but credulity is not the main goal of this film. Something like identification is the goal instead. Jozef plays a Sydney Carton-like figure of redemption here, only more flawed and without as glorious an ending. Anything but revisionist history, films like The Shop on Main Street appeal to the popular readings of WWII history and insist on a perpetual humanitarian response to events that did not happen so long ago. Though it must be conceded that there are Christ-like aspects to the person of Jozef, it is very difficult to believe that Ján Kadár intended this. If anything, the fact that Jozef is a carpenter and, in a sense, dies for a Jew, contrasts all the more with the fact that he is himself not a Jew, he fails ever to articulate or even understand his place in the shop or life in general, he is an alcoholic, and his eventual demise is in the vein of Macbeth or Hamlet, not Christ. This is certainly not to say that the film isn’t worthwhile for what it is, but to observe that its tragedy-melodrama tone put it in a tradition that is well-established. It is perhaps best understood as worthwhile for what it indicates about the Czech/Slovak state-of-mind-and-heart about the war by the time of the 60s rather than innovative in terms of film form. (Image from here.)
As silly a film as you’ll ever see, The Good Soldier Schweik (Dobrý voják Svejk) (or anyway, part one of it) bounces through its very long 110-or-so minutes like an attempt to unify Chaplin and the Three Stooges with a socio-political bent, exhausting the viewer for its lack of substance and a sense of humor that would make a 12-year-old feel grown up (or maybe just don’t watch it first thing on an early morning).
Do the Czechs (and their forerunners, the Czechoslovakians) have a thing for Chaplin? Or perhaps, “Czaplin”? Watching The Good Soldier Schweik and I Served the King of England in the same day, with their rather similar Chaplin-esque protagonists, makes one wonder. Like Schweik, Jan is a somewhat quiet fool who either trips or waltzes into good fortune. Unlike Schweik, Jan is crafty, clever, and usually surefooted. Probably most importantly, Jan is politically passive whereas Schweik is an activist. The earlier film fails to make an effective connection between activism and the pragmatic good, since its main character is an idiot who inexplicably comes up with the right solution to every problem he encounters. The later film at least illustrates effectively the sin of apathy, and it does so overtly by placing Jan in the heart of Nazism during WWII. Bent on becoming a millionaire and decorating women’s bodies with fruit and flowers (whatever happened to wanting to be an astronaut?). Jan succeeds to his own demise, learning and then forgetting all over again about the law of diminishing returns. Narrated by his older self now returned to “society” (though unplugged from the social pipeline), he falls back into his old vices internally if not externally, mentally if not in actions. He is the fool that he always was, but now he is older and slower. When a new maiden flirts him into running around the woods in a childlike chase, he stops and gasps for breath, but not without that youthful (read: stupid) spark in his eyes reflective of a naive embrace of the passions and refusal to grow up and find any substantial connection in another. Hardly speaking a word at all in the film (other than narration), Jan truly is a Czech stand-in for Hitler, a small “man” with excellent posture who always thinks more of himself than is fair and more of his future than his present actually allows. (He even sprouts the Fuhrer’s mustache once he’s embedded in the Reichland.)
This is the definition of an overly “political” film: when humanity gives way to politics. At the story’s end, Jan lets his stamp collection fly away, a collection that became symbolic of currency, of capitalism. It was for these stamps – ironically given to him by his German frau – that Jan went to prison for nearly 15 years, a year for every million of his monetary worth. This gesture of releasing his fortune indicates a release of the capitalism that defined the Nazi era and Jan’s success during that regime. To be trite, Jan learned his lesson, realized the shallowness of his money, and became content living in his shack in the woods. A return to his past is suggested as he turns his shack back into the tavern that it once was, but a transformation transcends his past as, this time, Jan sits down with his patron to have a beer with him. Class standing, evidently, is now leveled. Notwithstanding this epiphany, the aforementioned point about Jan’s failure to love or, for that matter, to see an attractive woman without behaving like an exceedingly polite animal toward her, still stands. How meaningful is a political or economic transformation when at a moral level a person remains the same as ever? Further, how meaningful is the transformation when, in fact, all the character has learned is that he can have all that he really wants without money? This seems less of a transformation than a realization, an arrival at a quintessentially hedonist conclusion. No real personality, no abilities that are not used for a sexual or financial goal, and no one to live for but himself.