The first fruit of the 1960s “Czechoslovak Film Miracle” to register in the West, 1965’s foreign film Oscar winner “The Shop on Main Street” now leads the charge to DVD of what came to be known as the Czech New Wave. Then as now, its condemnation of indifference in the face of oppression resonates with contempo relevance.
By late 1941, priest-turned-president Jozef Tiso’s puppet regime has allowed Nazi-fueled nationalism to run rampant in the Slovak State. In a rural northeastern village, listless but inadvertently principled carpenter Tono Brtko (Jozef Kroner) is appointed “Aryan controller” of a button shop and its elderly Jewish owner, Rozalia Lautmann (Ida Kaminska), by his jovial, collaborating brother-in-law (Frantisek Zvarik). Goaded by his greedy wife Evelyna (Hana Slivkova), Brtko reluctantly takes over, only to find that not only is there no money to be had (all the “good” Jewish businesses have already been assigned), but Rozalia is oblivious to the increasingly hostile environment. Brtko’s too- late stand results in tragedy for them both.
Veteran co-helmers Jan Kadar and Elmar Klos pungently recreate Slovak village life. Kroner’s perf is pitched perfectly between cheerful laziness and moral outrage, while Odessa-born Polish stage actress Kaminska brings a heartbreaking dignity to Rozalia’s plight (they shared Special Mention kudos at the 1965 Cannes fest).
Criterion’s full-frame pressing comes from Barrandov’s original negative, rendering a crisp, textured B&W image. Yet package as a whole is marred by textual inaccuracies. For the record, pic is performed entirely in Slovak (with a smattering of German), and Brtko himself is Slovak, not Czech (played by “Jozef,” not “Josef,” Kroner).
And contrary to breathless assertion that pic was “made near the height of Soviet oppression in Czechoslovakia,” the period from 1963 to 1969 was in fact a heady golden age of Czech and Slovak filmmaking, silenced only when Soviet tanks rolled into Prague and the Slovak capital Bratislava in late 1968. An illuminating 1966 essay by Kadar in the six-page fold-out booklet and a dark but clean trailer are set’s only extras.
As a result of Academy rules, “Shop” won its foreign lingo Oscar in 1965, while Kaminska was nominated for best actress in 1966, when pic was released by short-lived distrib Prominent Films. Criterion has also streeted Jiri Menzel’s “Closely Watched Trains” (which took the statue in 1967) and promises early Milos Forman titles “Loves of a Blonde” and “Firemen’s Ball” (both Oscar nommed) on their newly-revised release sked.