This film ended up somewhere very, very different from where I thought it was going to go, and left me a little punch-drunk.
Set in 1942, this is a story about the impact of the Third Reich’s “Aryanization” program on occupied Slovakia. Henpecked “Tóno” Brtko (Jozef Kroner) is a carpenter, but is no fan of the local fascist government and has had some unemployment issues. His wife Evelina (Hana Slivková) keeps nagging him to get a job on the crew building a fancy monument downtown, but that would force him to work for his brother in law Markuš (František Zvarík), who’s an officer for the government on top of being a generally smarmy jerk. But Evelina convinces her sister, Markuš’ wife, to pull some strings – and Markuš awards Tóno a job as the manager of the local sewing supply store. The current owner is a Jew, Markuš tells Tóno, and the Aryanization program has been confiscating all Jewish-owned businesses and transferring them to Slovaks.
But when Tóno heads to the shop to take over, he has a little trouble with the current owner – an elderly widow, Rozália Lautmannová (Ida Kamińska). Mrs. Lautmannová is very hard-of-hearing, and also a little fuzzy on reality – she knows nothing of the Aryanization programs, hasn’t heard a thing about the Third Reich, and keeps thinking that Tóno is a customer. Fortunately Imrich, a friend of Tóno’s, comes by while he is trying to explain things to Mrs. Lautmannová and steps in to help. Imrich Kuchár (Martin Hollý Sr.) quietly clues Tóno in that the shop is actually more a fantasy; the whole thing is being secretly funded by donations from the Jewish community to keep Mrs. Lautmannová comfortable in her old age. They stock it with just enough to serve the community’s needs and give her a modest pension, but the business isn’t profitable in the slightest. However, the town’s Jewish leaders have noticed Tóno might be sympathetic to their plight, and are offering to quietly pay him a weekly “salary” as well if he helps them keep up appearances. It seems like the best possible option, so Tóno agrees.
Most of the film deals with this arrangement, and the growing friendship between Tóno and Mrs. Lautmannová. She still doesn’t quite get what he’s doing there; she thinks he’s come to be her assistant, but he’s so inept that she demotes him to “repairman,” asking him to occasionally fix squeaky doors or errant shelves. Tóno also starts repairing all her own furniture as well, and in gratitude she gives him one of her deceased husband’s suits. They gossip over customers; they talk about the neighbor kids. She feeds him lunch every day. Evelina keeps nagging him to “find out where Mrs. Lautmannová is hiding her gold, because she’s a Jew and must have some”, so he quickly learns to hide the truth from her, spending more time just hanging out with Mrs. Lautmannová instead. But all the while, the noose is slowly tightening around the town’s Jews – until the day Tóno goes to collect his secret weekly salary and is told that the authorities are preparing to gather up all the Jews in town on the following morning and “send them off somewhere in boxcars”. Even worse – Imrich is arrested for being a Jewish sympathizer, with Markuš making a public show of him and warning that any other such sympathizers will meet a dire fate. Tóno rushes back to the store to warn Mrs. Lautmannová and urge her to escape or hide or something – but an uncomprehending Mrs. Lautmannová thinks he’s having a fight with his wife and makes up the guest bedroom for him. Tóno reluctantly agrees – the roundup will be taking place in the town square, just across the street from her shop, and he figures he can keep an eye on her that way and figure out what to do when the time comes.
And….that’s when the film turns. I won’t say that much about it; but the half hour “roundup sequence”, in which Tóno panics over “what to do about Mrs. Lautmannová”, was a complete sea change from how the rest of the film was going, and was in turns heartbreaking, harrowing, shocking, and frustrating. I was anticipating some kind of “escape plan” getting cooked up at the last minute – something hare-brained and loopy involving a makeshift costume, or something heroic and adventurous; but you do not get that at all. Instead you get something far more chaotic as Tóno changes his mind – and, sadly, his loyalty – back and forth again and again, for a harrowing half hour.
It’s easy for people today to speculate about “what I would have done to fight Nazis” – usually claiming that why, of course they would have hidden people in their closet or helped them flee town or suchlike. So all those people who just turned away and let it happen – they must have been Bad People! …But until such a thing is literally happening outside your window, you can’t know what you’d really do – and what you’d really do, or at least consider doing, might be morally questionable. This film ultimately felt like a reminder that this ambiguity is very human – and tragic.