Viewers for whom the former Czechoslovakia is, in the notorious words of Neville Chamberlain, “a faraway country of which we know little”, might be puzzled by one repeated image in Ján Kádar and Elmar Klos’s 1965 Oscar-winner The Shop on the High Street. It’s a huge pyramid erected by Nazi collaborators, whose insignia – a cross with two bars – is reminiscent of the not-quite-swastikas in films such as The Grand Budapest Hotel and The Great Dictator. Both the pyramid and the symbol are completely real. The cross is the insignia of the pro-Nazi Hlinka Guard who patrolled Slovakia during World War II, and the pyramid is a replica of one they really built, reconstructed in the village where it originally stood. Disturbingly, Kádar remembers a villager approaching him during the shoot and thanking him for bringing it back.
It is hard to imagine that villager enjoying Kádar and Klos’s finished film, though for everyone else Second Run’s new Blu-Ray release will prove a welcome opportunity to see one of the first international breakthroughs for post-War Czechoslovak cinema. Kádar and Klos were both well-established by the time the country’s celebrated New Wave began, and The Shop on the High Street’s visuals are closer to Golden Age Hollywood than anything the younger generation came up with in the 1960s. But its focus on Nazi occupation and the Holocaust fits in thematically with canonical Czechoslovak New Wave features like Jan Němec’s Diamonds of the Night and The Cremator – whose director, former Ravensbrück concentration camp inmate Juraj Herz, is credited here as an assistant to Kádar and Klos.
The Shop on the High Street was made just two decades after the liberation of the camps, in an era still wrestling with Theodor Adorno’s famous dictum that writing poetry after Auschwitz was barbaric. Like the New Wave films mentioned above, it does not depict the Holocaust directly. This should not be mistaken for artistic cowardice. Removing their film from the unambiguous evil of the extermination camps, Kádar and Klos instead address the uncomfortable grey areas of ordinary people forced to choose between collaborating with the Nazi state or facing its wrath. Its hero, Tóno (an amazing, vital, energetic performance by Jozef Kroner) is an essentially apolitical man. He doesn’t like the Nazis, and makes fun of Hitler in private, but when he sees the bounty of luxury food brought in by his Hlinka Guardsman brother-in-law, he doesn’t see the spoils of a Faustian bargain. He sees an attractive career opportunity.
So Tóno becomes a Nazi collaborator, although hardly a fanatical or high-ranking one. He becomes the state overseer of a Jewish business, the titular shop. Its elderly owner Rozália (an Oscar-nominated performance by Ida Kamińska) is insulated from the increasing madness of the world outside through her deafness and declining mental faculties. At first, Tóno enjoys his new authority, introducing himself to Rozália by cheerfully saying “I am your Aryan, and you’re my Jewess!” Slowly, however, his casual acceptance of Nazi racial policy is eroded by his affection for Rozália, and he finds himself risking his own safety to protect her.
Since the film is set in 1942, the year when Slovakia and other Nazi-occupied territories began deporting Jews to the camps, it’s clear that the stakes are high for Tóno and Rozália. Yet The Shop on the High Street is not the tense, disturbing film you may envisage. Like Herz’s later Holocaust films, it features a bracing dose of black humour – one character casually says “It’s a free country”, despite the fact that no, it really isn’t – and for much of its opening half hour it operates in the kind of jaunty, rural mode that modern viewers might associate with the work of Emir Kusturica. Even under the atheistic, modernity-obsessed Communist government that took power after the war, it was considered important for Slovak cinema to celebrate folk culture and rural traditions – so much so that Kádar’s debut feature Cathy was attacked for not focusing on this.
Is The Shop on the High Street, in part, an act of revenge for this? It features folk songs, rural religion, village life and all the other content the authorities found lacking in Cathy – and it does so in order to emphasise how these things were manipulated to justify Nazi ideology to the ordinary Slovak. Yet even after hijacking the Slovakian national identity, the Nazis still had to bribe the likes of Tóno to work for them. Compare this to Kádar and Klos’s depiction of the Jewish community: they support each other as a matter of instinctive kindness, rather than the greed or racial animus that motivates the other characters. In an indispensable 40-minute video essay, Michael Brooke provides a particularly acute analysis of Zdeněk Liška’s eclectic score, noting how it samples and subverts elements of the traditional Slovak music the Hlinka Guard use. The other diegetic music comes from a jolly brass band playing in the village square at the start, a sound which becomes wincingly ironic as the film goes on. The simple, ordinary life that The Shop on the High Street appears to be celebrating at first becomes a kind of placebo, a perfume to mask the smell of death in the air around Europe at that time.