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Slovakia during WW2. Tono lives a poor life, but the authorities offer him to take over the Jewish widow Lautman's little shop for sewing material. She is old and confused and thinks that he is only looking for employment and hires him. The odd couple begin to like each other. But some time later the authorities decide that the Jews must leave the city. What should he do with the old lady? Written by
Objective aethetics can sometimes require background information in order to properly judge a piece of art. In the case of this film, it is essential to realize that the film was made under heavy communist censorship. Thus we have plenty of anti-fascist rhetoric as well as the heroic rebel character who abound in Marxist cinema. Yet behind this facade is a devastating critique of the ideology of terror which is the foundation of not only fascism, but the communism of 1960's Eastern Europe.
There's a whole tradition of political film forced to obscure themes enough to slide them past superficial censors and into the minds of a sometimes discerning audience. It can be done by simply universalizing the themes and parallelling the setting with something the audience could recognize. But Chaplin had explored a different method with The Great Dictator, by finding the similarities between two seemingly opposite figures. Through his critique of Hitler, he took on American pomposity and brutality. It is a particularly effective method as it allows the target no way out, turning its own accusations against itself.
Much has been said about the comedy and tragedy's coexistence in this film, and it is indeed an important facet. The simple reason being that life is both funny and tragic, thus to universalize the themes so that any person can be in the Brtko's place, it is imperative to represent both spheres of life.
But the theme is not limited to a broad contemplation on life in the universal sense. There is a much more devestating critique of all totalitarian ideologies. Brtko begins with a simple and, one could argue, natural sense of survival. He is pushed into greed by his wife, and is then pushed into desperation by the his state-sanctioned duty. He finally arrives into a complete state of terror caused by the irrationality of the events around him, and heightened by his relationship with Mrs. Lautmann. Of course, this kind of degradation could happen just as easily under a communist regime as in the days of the Nazis, and this was what the censors missed and the Academy Awards loved.
Few films have the social significance of this one. Not only for its powerful message, but the fact that it is a glimpse into a world we know little about.
5 out of 5 - Essential
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