The Shop on the High Street to this day remains the only of only two Czech films to ever win the best foreign language film at the Academy Awards. The other for those who don’t know is Closely Observed Trains. Both films dealt with the Nazi occupation of the then Czechoslovakia which is today is now Czech Republic, Slovakia and the Ukraine. The film is sometimes considered a part of the Czechoslovak New Wave but the directors Ján Kadár and Elmar Klos were much older than the key directors of that movement and weren’t a part of the Prague film school.
The film deals with the Holocaust with humour which is always a controversial way to tackle it but in my opinion often the most effective. The film deals with the Aryanization programme the Nazis had in today’s Slovakia and the carpenter Tóno (Jozef Kroner) who is offered by the Nazis the chance to take over an old deaf Jewish woman’s sewing shop. The woman is confused and isn’t aware of what is happening outside of her shop. He is offered the money by the Jewish community to pretend to be her nephew and they work in the shop together. However obviously as everyone knows this isn’t gonna last forever.
The script was written by Ladislav Grosman who based the script on his earlier short story “The Trap” which he published before the film as a mashup between a novel and screenplay. The script uses humour especially between Tóno and the old woman’s interactions to weave one of the most effective depictions of the holocaust. Like many Czech films it also have dashes of surrealism including the film’s final moments. The performances are great and the production design also really puts you into the midst of occupied Czechoslovakia. The film’s last 10 minutes or so are some of the best of any Czech film.
Overall the film is one of the best Czech films to deal with the Holocaust even though I have a preference for Diamonds of the Night which is deliberately more surreal. The first assistant director was Juraj Herz who made perhaps the greatest Czech film ever made in The Cremator (also available from Second Run) which dealt with the Nazis in an extremely unusual way. The film is available on DVD or Blu-Ray and includes a filmed appreciation by Michael Brooke and an essay by Peter Hames both Second Run regulars when it comes to the special features.