This sad and devastating film, made in 1965 and which won an Oscar for Best Foreign Film and a nomination for Best Actress in a Foreign Film (both well deserved), takes us on a journey which begins in the realm of comedy and culminates in the land of tragedy.
The film is set in 1942 and Tono is a small town carpenter – he is neither ambitious nor greedy but sadly his wife, whose sister is married to a high-ranking officer in the Slovakian right-wing military, is and she desperately wants to have the same lovely clothes and foods supplied by the status and influence her brother-in-law holds. To this end, Tono is appointed by his brother-in-law, whom he heartily dislikes, as ‘Aryan Controller’ of a small shop in the town which has been owned by Mrs Lautmann, who is Jewish, for many years. Tono’s role, to his wife’s delight, is to take over the shop without having to pay for it and it gives a clear indication of the direction in which the film is travelling.
Tono presents himself at Mrs Lautmann’s shop, which has very little in the way of stock, and attempts to introduce himself and to explain why he is there. However, Mrs Lautmann, who is extremely hard of hearing, and perhaps has some confusion, mistakenly believes that Tono is there to work for her. Indeed, Tono is far more interested in restoring Mrs Lautmann’s beautiful old furniture than selling buttons and threads, which is the shop’s speciality, and happily lets the old lady believe he is her employee.
The Jewish community, together with people who wish to help them, restock Mrs Lautmann’s shop and agree to pay Tono a weekly salary so that he will be able to demonstrate he is making money from the situation and Mrs Lautmann can continue to be none the wiser. The development of the friendship between the two of them is a delight as Tono treads a very narrow path between protecting her and convincing his wife and family that he is very much the ‘Aryan Controller‘. His wife is sure that Mrs Lautmann has gold hidden away and nags Tono to find it, ‘to take up floorboards’ as ‘she’ is sure to have squirreled it away for safe keeping. Tono bursts into life at this point, his anger manifesting itself as he hits his wife, over and over again. By punishing her for her avarice (ironically that which the Jews are constantly accused of) he is also punishing himself for the position he finds himself in.
As the film unfolds so we become more aware of the threat to the Jewish community of the town – a huge monument bearing the crest of the Slovakian supporters, which is being constructed throughout the first half of the film, has been been completed and stands in the town square, surrounded by loudspeakers so the voices of the Hitler copyists can dominate the town. In one stroke the poor and elderly Town Crier has lost his job as the war machine takes over to manage what information the people will hear.
The speeches are full of the rhetoric, well recognised now, and threats which are always made, in this case both to the Jews and the ‘Jew Helpers’ of which Tono is now one, albeit by default because formerly he had been totally disinterested in anything outside of himself. One of them, a man who has always been much respected and who is incensed by what is happening, is taken and badly beaten and thrown into the street with a sign declaring ‘I am a Jew Lover’. Tono now realises the danger that he is presented with as well as Mrs Lautmann, who has been, until now, completely oblivious to the war and the changes it has created in attitude toward her and her faith.
The moment she understands that the Jews gathered in the town centre, with their belongings around them, are fated to die she begins to cry out ‘Pogrom, pogrom’, and the past horrors meted out to her forebears are being played out before her eyes. We are witness to a brilliant performance from Ida Kaminska, a renowned and respected actress and founder of a Jewish theatre group, as is that of Jozef Kroner as Tono. The fate of both Mrs Lautmann and Tono will not be revealed here but suffice it to say that the opening comedy of the film is no longer present.
I would urge you to seek out this work which holds an important place in the Czech New Wave films of the 1960s and whose directors made the (Communist) authorities so nervous and neurotic many films were banned for years. Films of this importance and power are the most challenging of art and so vital in what will always be a less than free world.