The Shop on Main Street: Holocaust in Film

Obchod na korze (original title)

Obchod na korze (original title)

The Shop on Main Street is a 1965 film directed by Ján Kadár. The film was originally presented in Slovak and Yiddish and was originally titled “Obchod na korze.” The film takes place in a small town in Slovakia during World War II and attempts to tackle the question of how the Jewish people were rounded up and deported to concentration camps. What was going through the minds of the Jewish people? Why didn’t they fight back? How did the average citizen allow their neighbors to be rounded up like animals and packed into cattle cars for deportation? Kadár addresses all of these questions and more. Besides being an informative and well-told story, The Shop on Main Street is packed with symbolism that further addresses the subject of the film. Symbolism is so prevalent in the film that Kadár was able to present much more information and meaning within the confines of the film’s running time than what seems possible.

The main conflict in the film is between the new fascist conception of the Slovakian nation-state and the Jewish people. Because of fascism’s focus on ultra-nationalism, “outside” elements had to be removed from perceived positions of authority and privilege, which resulted in Jewish people having their businesses removed from their ownership and placed under the control of an “Arisator,” an “Aryan” manager. The idea was that Slovakia was for Slovakians (expressed in the film through a marching cadence sung by soldiers marching down the street), and Jewish people were not considered to really be Slovakian. Later, the Jewish people were deported en masse for concentration camps. This conflict is the backdrop for the story that Kadár presents in his film, in which a bumbling “Aryan” carpenter named Tono Brtko is named the Arisator of a button shop on Main Street owned by a Jewish widow named Mrs. Lautmann.

Tono is a very complex character and his relationships with other people, how he interacts with them, is used as a plot device to symbolically portray the director’s opinion of the Aryanization and deportation process. Tono’s symbolism as a character in relation to other characters has multiple layers, starting with his wife in the opening scene, where Tono demonstrates a poor understanding of anything going on in the world while his wife badgers him for money. I felt that this was a critique of Slovakian society, and on a broader scale, Christian society in general, for the apparent greed displayed in the confiscation of Jewish shops and goods during the World War II deportations. It reminded me of something Elie Weisel wrote, when he said that while he and his family were being deported from their home town, he felt as if the people who had just previously been their neighbors were eagerly waiting for them to board the trains, so they could loot and pillage through their homes. Later in the film, Tono’s wife berates him for not finding the gold that Mrs. Lautmann must have buried somewhere in her house, as if all Jews were leprechauns and one need only catch one to receive a pot of treasure.

The other important symbolic relationship that Tono has is with Mrs. Lautmann, the owner of the shop he is supposedly taking over. Mrs. Lautmann is an old, slightly senile widow. Her late husband died in a war (World War I?) and since then she has been on her own, though technically she has been receiving a stipend from the rest of the Jewish community. Her shop is in complete disrepair, but she seems to be completely oblivious to the fact, and also demonstrates a lack of understanding of anything that’s going on around her, including her new “Arisator-Jew” relationship with Tono, until the last scenes in the film, when reality suddenly and painfully dawns on her. Even at that moment, however, instead of proactively trying to hide herself, she runs to her bedroom to study Torah. In this relationship, Tono clearly represents Slovakian society as a whole, while Mrs. Lautmann represents the Jewish community. In this film, while Slovakians are busy robbing the Jewish people of their property and preparing to deport them, the Jewish people are presented as being oblivious to the real dangers that are going on around them and only wake up to reality when it’s too late to do anything about it (Mrs. Lautmann suddenly recognizes the deportation event as a pogram near the end of the film).

The film does present a different view of the Jewish predicament in the form of Mr. Katz, who reminds the viewer that there really wasn’t much they could do in terms of rising up against their oppressors. After all, what could an old woman like Mrs. Lautmann and an old barber do when the fascist government troops were standing on every corner with automatic weapons? The film doesn’t present a clear and easy answer. I don’t think it intended to. It was meant to inform and make the viewer think about how and why something as tragic as the deportation and later near-extermination of the Jews could occur, and it does that well.

These observations are barely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to dissecting all of the symbolism and meaning in The Shop on Main Street. Ján Kadár’s film is excellently done, explaining both the mindset of the Slovakians and the relationship between the average Slovakian and the Jewish community that doesn’t overly simplify the situation into a black and white conflict. Other important aspects of the film are the references to animals and the natural order of the world vs. the activities of the Slovakian government, as well as an excellent use of music to set the tone, but those issues are beyond my ability to address in this short reaction paper.

Night and Fog: The Holocaust in Film

The documentary, Night and Fog, directed by Alain Resnais, was produced in 1955 as a short historical documentary about concentration camps used during the Holocaust. The film’s original language is French and the original title is “Nuit et brouillard.” I watched the film using English subtitles. Night and Fog doesn’t attempt to explain how the Holocaust happened. Rather, it is a short film that attempts to explain what happened using a combination of historical footage and contemporary images and video of several concentration camps in Poland. Night and Fog is full of juxtapositions of contradictions: contemporary scenes vs. historical scenes, idyllic music vs. dramatic music, the normal or mundane vs. the absurd reality of the camps.

Night and Fog mixes scenes of contemporary color footage with historical black and white footage. This is done in a way that contrasts the almost pastoral scenes of the period of filming with the reality of what happened in those places in the past. As the narrator says, almost any place, even a resort village with a county fair, could lead to a concentration camp. In the contemporary footage, the narrator reinforces this contradiction by describing how new grass is growing, how a person might mistake a building for an actual clinic, and how the only thing left to see is a shell, devoid of the actions, emotions and experiences of the people that lived there. To go beyond that faҫade of normalcy, the historical footage is used, showing what actually went on inside those buildings and on those grounds. It’s a powerful way to remind the viewer to not dismiss the intensity of the events that happened in concentration camps just because they do not look that dangerous anymore.

Music also played an important role in defining different scenes in the film. From nearly the beginning of the documentary, it became obvious that the music seemed to be intentionally off, playful when it should have been somber, dramatic when it should have been idyllic, and almost graceful when it should have been attempting to express the inexpressible sadness of the scene. One of the most obvious examples of misplaced music is the scene depicting what happens to those who are sent “right” (rather than left, to work) to mass extermination after arriving in the concentration camps. In a scene where the music should be dark and brooding, the tone is soft, graceful, and almost dreamy. Another example is the scene showing the latrine. The music in this scene is probably the most forceful of the whole film, but it comes in at a point where one of those most normal and mundane actions in human life occurs. Why is the music misplaced? Perhaps it is to more closely hold the attention of the viewer by intentionally being jarring and discordant.  And perhaps the fact that the most idyllic music is shown at moments of death is meant to emphasize the peace that death brought compared to those who suffered the horrors of life in the concentration camp, which also touches on the next point.

The juxtaposition of the mundane and normal with the horrific events going on in the camps seems to have been purposely done to both emphasize the unnaturalness of life in the camps and to show the scale of the atrocity. “Normal” life is shown in the home of the commandant, with his bored wife acting in much the same way as she would in “any garrison town.” Just beyond the fences were scenes of “normal” life in nearby villages and towns. These scenes are juxtaposed with the scenes of the “town” the SS had actually built, where every aspect of life is a struggle to survive, even the toilets, where every act of relieving oneself became a litmus test for life expectancy. Normal life for inmates before being brought to the concentration camps is expressed in the film through showing the images of people in their passports. The scale in terms of numbers of people is added by flipping through dozens and dozens of pages of a leger showing camp inmates. The scale of the violence is shown through the casual litter of bodies found by liberating forces and in the way they were disposed of, almost as if they were sacks of garbage. The absurdity of their living situation is shown through their sleeping accommodations coupled with images of the presence of a green house, a brothel and even a zoo on camp grounds. Why add these conflicting images? To continue to break down the idea that anything normal or regular was happening in the camps, to express that it was a break with the natural progress of humanity?

The imagery used in the film is graphic and shocking. The purpose seems to be to force the viewer to observe the real result and purpose of the camps. Close-ups are regularly used. The camera seems to continually focus on the eyes, both in still images and on the eyes of the dead. This might just be for shock value, but it might also be meant to remind the viewer of the images of living, happy people shown in the entry visa photos, before their lives were altered by being in the concentration camps.

Night and Fog uses many techniques to aid in the narration of what happened in the concentration camps, to add impact and express ideas that cannot necessarily be verbalized. The film’s biggest tool is that of juxtaposing imagery to deliver the messages of scale, violence, and absurdity, and the necessity of not forgetting what happened just because things seem to be ok ‘now’. The narrator expresses this need to not forget, to go beyond the apparent faҫade, and watch out for the return of “monsters” that would plunge the world back into the absurdity epitomized by the concentration camps.