This article is a revised version of one originally published in the Czech journal The New Presence, December 1998.
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A trivia question such as ‘Which film won the Oscar for best foreign film in 1966?’ should not be too taxing for Central European cinema buffs. However, the follow-up question: ‘Which country’s heritage does this film belong to?’ proves to be far more difficult and it has, in fact, lead commentators into confusion and contradiction.
The answer to the first question is Obchod na korze (Shop on the High Street, 1965), a film depicting the rise of fascism in the wartime Slovak state, as seen through the eyes of an amiably unambitious craftsman, Tono Brtko (Jozef Kroner). Tono feels he has nothing in common with the Hlinka Guards and the Nuremburg decrees they are enacting in the name of Slovakia. However, when his treacherous brother-in-law offers him the chance to become the ‘Aryaniser’ of a shop belonging to an elderly and eccentric-if not senile-Jewess, Mrs Lautmanová, he cannot escape being pushed into the task by his materialistic wife, who thinks Aryanisation is the best thing since sliced bread.
The film ends tragically when Tono, in his first conscious act of resistance, uses force to hide Mrs Lautmanová when the Jewish Community is being rounded up to be sent to a concentration camp. In the struggle, she falls and dies. Unsure whether his identity now lies with the Slovaks who try to hide Jewish children or the Hlinka Guards who oppress Jews, he hangs himself.
Obchod na korze is, therefore, about those perpetual Central European themes: the ‘little man’ caught up in things beyond his control and the nature of identity. More specifically, the film can be read as an allegory of the equally brutal rise of Stalinism. The film’s fine balancing of comic charm and brooding evil as well as its rich metaphoric language are easily evident, and it certainly deserved its Academy Award.
The second question should now be easy. But it most certainly is not. The film was directed by Ján Kadár, a Budapest-born Slovak with Jewish roots (some of his family had perished in Auschwitz), and Elmar Klos, a Czech. The screenplay was based on a novel by Ladislav Grosman, a Czech with Jewish roots who grew up in Slovakia. The film is set in Slovakia, the dialogue is in Slovak and the background of the actors is mainly Slovak, although Ida Kaminska, who played Mrs Lautmanová, was born in Odessa.
For years the film has happily been labelled by all as ‘Czechoslovak’, but the issue is clouded by the ‘velvet divorce’ of the Czech and Slovak Republics, which took place as the bells chimed midnight to welcome in the new year of 1993. Since then, arguments have raged over possession of gold bullion, gothic altar-pieces and airplanes, to name but a few. Films have largely escaped the wrangling, but the success of Obchod na korze has made it worth claiming for the two respective national heritages, with finely balanced Czech and Slovak input into the film allowing both sides to forward plausible-sounding claims.
Nation and hyphen
The controversy is illustrated by an exchange printed in the Prague-based magazine Cinema, which in 1998 called the film ‘Czech’. A Slovak reader wrote in for the following issue, asking if it would be more correct to label films from the era 1918 to 1992 ‘Czechoslovak’ (1). The basis of the argument presumably being that the country was called Czechoslovakia in this period (with the exception of World War II) and that the Oscar was awarded to Czechoslovakia.
This is a strong argument and a rational one, too. However, in the emotive world of Central European identities it is, perhaps, too rational, and it is an approach to answering the question which is largely unfashionable at the moment. Both countries are keen to assert their separate identities and now react angrily to the idea that they are just two different branches of the same nation and may have had a common destiny; the assumptions on which Czechoslovakia was formed in the first place.
Cinema in its response to the letter repudiated the term ‘Czechoslovak’ and insisted the film is ‘Czech’. Their arguments are based on the practical arrangements surrounding the film: it was made with Czech money and filmed by a Czech company-the world-famous Barrandov Studios. Slovak films, they argue, were made by Koliba studios in Brastislava, and they implicitly believe that the location of the film’s action is irrelevant in deciding the ‘nationality’ of a film. If there was such a correlation, presumably the national heritage of outer space would be far richer.
Cinema has a bombshell, though. Having denied the validity of the term ‘Czechoslovak’, they admit that there were ‘Czecho-Slovak’ films, although they do not consider Obchod na korze to be one of them. What is the difference? ‘Czechoslovak’ refers to the now unfashionable political entity of Czechoslovakia, whereas ‘Czecho-Slovak’ in general implies a collaboration between two independent nations, and in this case between a Czech studio and a Slovak studio.
Seasoned observers of relations between the two countries will recognise the term ‘Czecho-Slovak’ from the dying days of Czechoslovakia when the ‘great hyphen debate’ seemingly engulfed all political discussion. Slovaks wanted the country to become ‘Czecho-Slovakia’ in recognition of the equal role they played in it, whilst, on the whole, the Czechs thought that their demands were petty and that the name was better left as it was. It, therefore, seems slightly ironic to see a Czech magazine reviving the term. Cinema, incidentally, also goes further and proposes another category, ‘Slovako-Czech’ films, to denote films where the Slovak contribution is higher than the Czech contribution.
Slovak in spirit?
Cinema‘s arguments, based on the practicalities of making the film, would cut little ice with the Slovak critic Jozef Macko. In the book Slovenske hrany film 1946-1969 (1993), Macko examines the acting, the film’s poetics and its principal themes (2). From this point of view he considers the film ‘Slovak’. He is at pains to point out that Kadár (the Slovak) was responsibe for shooting the film and directing the action and the actors, whilst Klos’s contribution came more in the final stages of the film-its editing and montage.
Undoubtedly, Kadár and Klos would have loved all this confusion over the film’s nationality, since identity is precisely what their masterpiece is about. Macko, who is also interested in the identity aspects of the film, points out that having made Obchod na korze, a film in Slovak based on a Czech novel, the pair went on to make Touha zvaná Anada (Something is Drifting on the Water, 1969), a film in Czech based on a Slovak novel, which is also by an author with Jewish roots, Ladislav MnHacka. The multicultural feel continues with the actors in this film, who come from Hungary, Yugoslavia and America, as well as from Czechoslovakia.
Obchod na korze may be Slovak on one level and the financial backing for it was certainly Czech. However, to label the film so narrowly is both to miss the film’s point and also, bizarrely enough, to illustrate it. All the squabbles over which nationality the film may or may not have are ironic reflections of the film’s principal concerns-identity in a multi-cultural Europe where political and ethnic borders so often have little in common.
For me, Obchod na korze is interesting because its screenplay refuses to be limited to the narrow confines of the screen. It leaps out at us and the issues it discusses come alive on whatever level we may talk about the film. I am half tempted to accuse Kadár and Klos of engineering this purposefully, although there is no way they could have predicted the split of Czechoslovakia and its consequences. Whether this was a deliberate ruse or not, the film shows its continued relevance to today’s society by the very arguments it still manages to provoke.