Czech director Ján Kadár (1918–1979) became the first filmmaker from Czechoslovakia to win an Academy Award for best foreign film for The Shop on Main Street. The 1965 cinema classic is a bittersweet tale of an elderly Jewish shopkeeper in a small Slovakian town during World War II, and the troubles that befall her. Kadár's film was the first in a brief but significant burst of projects from the Eastern Bloc country during the 1960s in what came to be known as the Czech New Wave.
Interned During the War
Kadár was of Jewish extraction himself, but claimed he rarely encountered anti–Semitism during his lifetime. He was born on April 1, 1918, in the same year that Czechoslovakia achieved independence in the aftermath of World War I's end and the dissolution of the Austro–Hungarian empire. As a young man, he studied law in the Slovak capital of Bratislava, but abandoned it to pursue photography by 1938. The Munich Agreement that same year, between Nazi Germany and other western European nations, gave tacit approval for Germany's invasion of Czechoslovakia. Slovakia became an independent fascist state, under close German supervision, for the duration of World War II.
Czechoslovakia's Jews were deported to Nazi concentration camps, and at one point Kadár ran afoul of authorities and spent time in a labor camp himself in the early 1940s. After the war's end, Czechoslovakia became a Communist Party–dominated socialist republic, closely allied with the Soviet Union. Kadár moved into the re–emerging film industry, and became a producer and director at the Bratislava Studio of Short Films. His first credit was the 1945 documentary short, Life Is Rising from the Ruins, about the rebuilding of Slovakia in the months immediately following the end of the war.
Periodically Ran Afoul of Authorities
In 1946 Kadár joined the highly regarded Barrandov Studios in Prague, sometimes called the "Hollywood of the East." There he was a scriptwriter and assistant director, and directed his first feature film, Katka (Cathy), in 1950. Shot in Slovakia, the film centers around a young woman from a poor village who becomes a factory worker. Its failure to meet a certain politically correct ideology as dictated by the state–controlled film industry landed Kadár in trouble, and he was briefly expelled from the state filmmakers' union.
At Barrandov Kadár had met Elmar Klos, and the two began a collaboration in 1952 that would endure for much of their career inside Czechoslovakia. The alliance with Klos, who was also part of group that drew up plans for the nationalization of the Czech film industry, certainly helped him avoid some—though not all—future trouble. Their first film together was 1952's Únos (Kidnapped), about a group of Czechoslovakians desperate to flee to the West. They hijack a plane, but find themselves the political pawns of an ardent group of anti–Communists. Hudba z Marsu (Music from Mars), released in 1954, was Kadár and Klos's next project together, but the musical comedy poked fun at bureaucrats and once again aroused the ire of government officials.
Started Gritty Czech Realism
With Dum na konečné (House at the Terminus), Kadár and Klos managed to make a film that satisfied political ideologies. The plot centers on Olina, a young woman who unexpectedly finds herself pregnant. Her boyfriend, Karel, is uninterested in marriage or becoming a parent, and tries to urge her to terminate the pregnancy. In the end, she spurns him and decides to have the child on her own. "By avoiding explicitly 'public' problems and issues and concentrating instead on the private sphere, the film managed to avoid censure for drawing what is surely a rather depressing picture of Czech society," noted an essay on Kadár's works that appeared in the International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers.
For their next work, Kadár and Klos made a modern fairy tale, but it also touched upon a housing shortage in the country and other difficulties, and for this they earned a two–year suspension from filmmaking. Tri prání (Three Wishes), made in 1958 but not shown in Czechoslovakia until 1963, is the familiar story of a man who has been granted three wishes. He prospers, but his closest friend loses his job for voicing criticisms of the regime; the wish–granter returns and offers to restore the friend's career if the hero gives up what he has gained via the three previous favors. After their suspension was finished, Kadár and Klos returned with Smrt sí říká Engelchen (Death Is Called Engelchen), released in 1963, which took the top prize at the Moscow Film Festival. In 1964, they made Obzalovany (The Accused), a story about embezzlement at a hydroelectric power plant.
In 1965, signs of a new cultural and political movement in Czechoslovakia were emerging. Certain restrictions had loosened, and the arts began to flourish. Cinema, in particular, became the new proving ground for less–than–ideal portrayals of life behind the Iron Curtain. Bohumil Hrabal's 1965 film Pearls of the Deep ushered in what became known as the Czech New Wave, which would encompass some 200 films in all before its abrupt end in 1968. Taking its name from the French nouvelle vague cinema classics of the 1950s by Jean–Luc Godard, these films were groundbreaking depictions of life in the Eastern Bloc that featured socially relevant topics filmed with a lyrical artistry.
The Shop on Main Street
Kadár's Obchod na korze (The Shop on Main Street) was released in 1965 and became one of the first products of the Czech New Wave to win international acclaim. Kadár borrowed the story from a novel by Ladislav Grosman called The Trap, and worked with Klos to adapt the novel for the screenplay. The story is set in a small town in northeastern Slovakia during World War II. Mrs. Lautmann is an elderly Jewish widow and the proprietor of a button and sewing–notions store. When a law goes into effect that forbids Jews from owning businesses, a bumbling carpenter named Tono (Josef Kroner) is assigned to take it over as its new "Aryan controller." Reviewing Kadár's masterpiece in the New York Times in 1966, film critic Bosley Crowther asserted "it is one of the very few films from central Europe made since World War II that has dared to treat frankly and unrelentingly . . . the black crime of Jewish persecution in which so many millions of people in Europe were morally involved."
Tono's greedy wife is pleased, believing that his new post will boost the household income, but Tono learns Mrs. Lautmann's shop makes little money and barely stocks any goods anyway. Tono soon develops a fondness for the kindly widow, who is both hard of hearing and blissfully unaware of current events. She believes Tono has come to work as her assistant, and a contingent of Jews in the community offer him money to maintain the ruse. When deportations of Jews to the Nazi concentration camps begin, Mrs. Lautmann's name is not on the official list. Tono fears that he will be jailed for protecting a Jew, and tries to convince her to go anyway when loudspeakers warn the townspeople against hiding the deportees. When Mrs. Lautmann balks, an agitated and drunken Tono locks her in a closet, and later finds her dead. Horrified, he hangs himself. "The fact that the little carpenter, like Judas Iscariot, hangs himself is a clear and devastating symbolization," noted Crowther in the New York Times, "of the shame of betraying the Christian faith."
Czech Cinema Briefly Flourished
The Shop on Main Street won the 1965 Academy Award for best foreign film in early 1966, and was an international box–office hit despite its tough subject matter. "An extremely effective picture of everyday fascism in an ordinary small community, the film may revolve around a grim and tragic theme but it is actually played largely as a gentle comedy," the International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers essay noted some years later. "Kadár once claimed that his favourite directors were Chaplin, Truffaut, and Fellini, and their presences can all be felt here."
Thanks in part to Kadár's success, the Czech New Wave flourished over the next few years. Several other groundbreaking films came out of the country, including Closely Watched Trains, which won an Academy Award for best foreign film in 1968, and Milos Forman's The Fireman's Ball, an Oscar nominee in the category in 1969. But the increasingly liberal climate in Czechoslovakia, even within the Communist Party itself, aroused the wrath of Moscow, and in August of 1968 Soviet tanks rolled across the borders. The brief era known as that year's "Prague Spring" abruptly ended, as did the groundbreaking works from the country's films studios.
Kadár left Czechoslovakia, setting first in Vienna and later in Los Angeles. At the time of the Soviet invasion, he and Klos were working on a Czech–American production called Adrift. They were later able to return and finish the bleak, haunting tale of a young woman who tries to commit suicide by jumping in the Danube River and the man who saves her—or believes he has saved her. A critic for the Harvard Crimson, Alan Heppel, found it a trenchant parable. "Kadár resolves none of the dilemmas that his movie raises; he merely suggests the universality and complexity of its problems. Uncertainty is at the film's center. Yanos questions himself so completely that he becomes unsure of the existence of the girl. In an age of doubt the threat of losing one's moorings is implicit in every variation of routine. Adrift is a magnificently crafted and disturbing reminder of every man's tenuous hold on the secure and the controllable."
Worked in Hollywood
Lured by Hollywood, Kadár directed his first American feature film, The Angel Levine, based on a Bernard Malamud story. The 1970 release starred Zero Mostel as a devout Jew who cannot afford medicine for his ailing wife. Ida Kaminská, the veteran stage actress from Warsaw who had played Mrs. Lautmann in The Shop on Main Street, was cast as his wife. An angel appears in their kitchen, but in a twist, he is black, played by Harry Belafonte.
Kadár spent the rest of the decade making mostly television films. He directed Lies My Father Told Me for Canadian television in 1975, about a Jewish boy growing up in Montreal in the 1920s, The Blue Hotel in 1977, and The Other Side of Hell, a supernatural thriller. His last project was Freedom Road, a 1979 NBC mini–series that starred boxing great Muhammad Ali as a former slave who becomes a U.S. senator in the Reconstruction–era American South.
Kadár died on June 1, 1979, in Los Angeles. The Shop on Main Street remains a cinema classic. An essay he wrote in 1966 that appeared in the New York Herald Tribune that year as well as on the 2001 DVD release of his Oscar–winner was titled "Not the Six Million but the One." In it, he discussed the casting of Kaminská and Josef Kroner in the lead roles. "We were fortunate," he noted. "Their dramatic unity has swept me off my feet. And I am sure that audiences will find it difficult to forget the white–haired, hard–of–hearing, and bewildered old lady with the innocent face. She is the most powerful reminder I know of fascism and its victims."
Hames, Peter, The Czechoslovak New Wave, University of California Press, 1985.
International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, Volume 2: Directors, fourth edition, St. James Press, 2000.
Harvard Crimson, February 23, 1972.
New York Herald Tribune, January 23, 1966.
New York Times, January 30, 1966.
Variety, October 22, 2001.
"Kadár, Ján." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 18, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/kadar-jan
"Kadár, Ján." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved January 18, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/kadar-jan
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Nationality: Czechoslovak. Born: Budapest, 1 April 1918. Education: Gave up law studies to study photography at Bratislava school, 1938. Career: Prisoner in Nazi labor camp, early 1940s; after war, producer and director, Bratislava Studio of Short Films; scriptwriter and assistant director, Barrandov Studio, Prague, from 1947; began association with Elmar Klos (born in Brno, 26 January 1910), 1952; moved to U.S., 1969. Awards: Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, for The Shop on Main Street, 1965; National Artist of Czechoslovakia, 1969. Died: In Los Angeles, 1 June 1979.
Films as Director:
Life Is Rising from the Ruins
Katka (Kitty) (+ co-sc)
Unos (Kidnapped) (co-d, co-sc with Elmar Klos)
Hudba z Marsu (Music from Mars) (co-d, co-sc with Klos)
Tam na konečné (The House at the Terminus) (co-d with Klos)
Tři přání (Three Wishes) (co-d, co-sc with Klos)
Smrt si řiká Engelchen (Death Is Called Engelchen) (co-d, co-sc with Klos)
Obžalovaný (The Accused; The Defendant) (co-d, co-sc with Klos)
Obchod na korze (The Shop on Main Street; The Shop on theHigh Street) (co-d, co-sc with Klos)
The Angel Levine
Touha zvaná Anada (Adrift), Something Is Drifting on theWater) (completed 1969; co-d with Klos)
Lies My Father Told Me
Nevité o byte? (Looking for a Flat) (sc)
By KADÁR: book—
Selected Speeches and Interviews, London, 1985.
By KADÁR: articles—
"Elmar Klos and Jan Kadár," interview with Jules Cohen, in FilmCulture (New York), Fall/Winter 1967.
Interview with Robert Haller, in Film Heritage (Dayton, Ohio), Spring 1973.
Interview with L. Vigo, in Image et Son (Paris), June 1973.
On KADÁR: books—
Bocek, Jaroslav, Modern Czechoslovak Film 1945–1965, Prague, 1965.
Liehm, Antonin, Closely Watched Films, White Plains, Prague, 1974.
Hames, Peter, The Czechoslovak New Wave, Berkeley, 1985.
On KADÁR: articles—
"Director," in the New Yorker, 12 February 1966.
"The Czech Who Bounced Back," in Films Illustrated (London), April 1972.
Obituary, in New York Times, 4 June 1979.
Moret, H., obituary in Ecran (Paris), 15 July 1979.
Gervais, G., obituary in Jeune Cinéma (Paris), July/August 1979.
Keenan, Richard C., "The Sense of an Ending: Jan Kadár's Distortion of Stephen Crane's The Blue Hotel," in Literature/FilmQuarterly (Salisbury, Maryland), vol. 16, no. 4, 1988.
* * *
Ján Kadár is undoubtedly best known for his film The Shop on the High Street, made with his long–time collaborator, Elmar Klos. This was the first Czechoslovak film to win an Academy Award and was heralded as the beginning of the Czech film renaissance of the 1960s. In fact, Kadár made his first feature, Katka, in 1950, and Klos was one of those who helped to draw up the plans for the nationalisation of the film industry in that decade. This, of course, was a mixed blessing, as Kadár himself pointed out: "to innovative filmmakers this was a dream—it would liberate them from commercial pressures. Instead, there was political pressure. This was the disadvantage of subsidised art."
Katka itself ran into political difficulties. Made in Kadár's native Slovakia, it tells the story of a village girl who becomes a factory worker. However, as the director points out, at about this time "it had been decided that it was no longer necessary to urge people to leave their homes for industry. But above all, the film wasn't 'national' enough, it wasn't sufficiently steeped in folklore and Slovakism. And that was referred to as 'the bourgeois point of view."' Expelled from the Slovak film industry, Kadár "became Czech" and began his partnership with Klos. Their first collaboration was Kidnapped, which Kadár later described as "an extremely naive, dogmatic, cold-war type of film" but which was nonetheless criticised at the time for "bourgeois objectivism." Saved by the intervention of V. I. Pudovkin, they went on to make Music from Mars, a musical satire on bureaucracy, which gave rise to complaints that they had slandered public figures.
Their next film steered clear of trouble. This was House at the Terminus, which posed the question of whether is it right to bring children into the world in its present state. Given the country's low and falling birth rate this was more than simply a philosophical question. By avoiding explicitly "public" problems and issues and concentrating instead on the private sphere, the film managed to avoid censure for drawing what is surely a rather depressing picture of Czech society. Peter Hames in The Czechoslovak New Wave speaks of its air of "gloomy desolation" and remarks that although "there is little overt political criticism, the implicit criticism is considerable, and the problems with which it deals take place in a social context. Hence loneliness, cynicism, personal and professional failure, compromise, wrongful imprisonment, and lack of faith are shown as generalised characteristics of a supposedly socialist society," one in which, that is, such problems have supposedly been eliminated.
Three Wishes, a modern version of the old fairy tale in which a character is granted his heart's desire only to find that the dream turns sour, was banned until 1963 (that is, once the process of de-Stalinization had got under way). Again, the problem seems to have been that it painted a less than ideal view of society, since it shows the central character realising his wishes by exploiting the corruption and hypocrisy he finds around him in society.
After this film, Kadár and Klos were unable to work again for two years, but during the ensuing "thaw" period they produced their most famous work, The Shop on the High Street. This is set in Slovakia during the period of the independent fascist state, described by one Czechoslovak critic as "a gruesomely grotesque miniature of the apocalypse of the Third Reich" and by Klos as representing "a special kind of national fascism." The story concerns an old, deaf Jewish woman and her relationship with the Slovak who is assigned to her shop as an "Aryan controller." An extremely effective picture of everyday fascism in an ordinary small community, the film may revolve around a grim and tragic theme but it is actually played largely as a gentle comedy. Kadár once claimed that his favourite directors were Chaplin, Truffaut, and Fellini, and their presences can all be felt here in the quirky, offbeat humour, the mingling of the comic and tragic, and the gentle observation of its characters' failures and all-too-human shortcomings. One is also, of course, put in mind of the early works of Passer, Forman and Menzel. Like the old lady at the centre of the film, Kadár was himself Jewish, and although by his own account he never encountered anti-Semitism, The Shop later attracted charges of Zionism from certain quarters, particularly after Kadár's departure for the States.
With the end of the "Prague Spring," Kadár left Czechoslovakia for Vienna and from there went to America. At the time of the invasion he and Klos were working on a Czech-American co-production titled Adrift, which was made in collaboration with the Hungarian writer Imre Gyöngyössy, who later went on to become a director himself. On his arrival in the States, Kadár was fortunate enough to be offered the direction of The Angel Levine, based on a Bernard Malamud story. He then returned to Czechoslovakia to completeAdrift. This is an atypical Kadár film, clearly influenced by Resnais and Robbe-Grillet, about a girl who may or may not have been saved from drowning in the Danube.
In the States and Canada (where he also found work) Jewish themes in his films clearly came to the fore—hence The Angel Levine, Lies My Father Told Me, and Mendelstam's Witness. Other works which must surely have had a strong personal resonance for the director were the TV movies The Case against Milligan, which examines the theme of freedom of conscience, and The Other Side of Hell, which looks at the plight of the sane person in an insane society. While none of his later films attain the level of The Shop on the High Street, they nonetheless attest to the warmth and generosity of spirit that is the hallmark of Kadár's best and most typical work.
"Kadár, Ján." International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 18, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/movies/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/kadar-jan
"Kadár, Ján." International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers. . Retrieved January 18, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/movies/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/kadar-jan