A World War II-era story told with unusual sensitivity, The Tobacconist — which enjoyed its North American premiere in Palm Springs — should appeal to specialized audiences, and not simply because of its anti-Nazi theme. For one thing, it is a stunning recreation of the late 1930s in Vienna, thanks to the talents of director Nikolaus Leytner, his cinematographer and art director. The film expertly captures the tensions in the Austrian capital on the eve of Hitler’s takeover, and it also manages to be a vibrant coming-of-age story and an intriguing portrayal of Sigmund Freud, expertly portrayed by Bruno Ganz.
The film opens far from Vienna, in the beautiful lakeside community of Attersee, though the opening scene is not exactly idyllic. A spectacular lightning storm is superbly captured by the filmmakers. The scene is slightly surreal: The young hero, Franz (Simon Morze), happens upon his mother and her latest lover having passionate sex outdoors as storm clouds threaten. When her lover is struck by lightning, Franz’s mother sends Franz to Vienna to get a job with a tobacconist, who happens to be another former lover. The boy starts working as an apprentice to Otto (Johannes Krisch), a cynical but generous man who lost a leg in the First World War and is welcoming to all customers, including Communists and Jews. One of his favored patrons is the controversial sage of Vienna, Dr. Freud, who is probably as well remembered today for his love of cigars as for his pioneering works of psychoanalytic theory.
Franz eventually seeks out Freud for advice on his love life. The young man is intensely attracted to Anezka (engagingly played by Emma Drogunova), a woman who may be a prostitute but certainly has numerous lovers. The Freudian underpinnings of this romance are fairly overt; Franz is clearly attracted to a woman who reminds him of his promiscuous mother. Franz approaches the good doctor for romantic counsel. Freud is supportive but clearly has other pressing concerns, especially the rising anti-Semitism in Vienna.
The Tobacconist does an excellent job balancing the personal and political stories, and here the director may owe a debt to the author of the original novel, Robert Seethaler. There are powerful scenes depicting the growing violence in Vienna, especially after the Nazis take over the city and arrest Otto. Franz’s personal story is enhanced by imaginatively rendered nightmares, though one disappointment of the film is that a climactic scene we envision — in which Freud analyzes the young man’s dreams — never materializes. But strong characterizations and performances make up for some lapses in the script. Morze is vibrant as Franz, and Krisch has the right mix of harshness and solicitude as the uncompromising tobacconist. Ganz makes Freud wise and vulnerable at the same time.
The visual achievements of the pic may be its strongest quality. Cinematographer Hermann Dunzendorfer and production designer Bertram Reiter bring time and place alive. Although there have been other films made about this traumatic period of history, the unique characters and the voluptuous filmmaking contribute to one more worthwhile journey to a dark corner of the past.
Production companies: Epo-Film Produktionsgesellschaft, Glory Film, Tobis Film, ARD Degeto Film, Perathon Film-und Fernsehproduktions GmbH
Distributor: Menemsha Films
Cast: Simon Morze, Bruno Ganz, Johannes Krisch, Emma Drogunova, Regina Fritsch, Karoline Eichhorn
Director: Nikolaus Leytner
Screenwriters: Klaus Richter, Nikolaus Leytner; based on the novel by Robert Seethaler
Producers: Dieter Pochiatko, Jakob Pochiatko, Ralf Zimmerman
Director of photography: Hermann Dunzendorfer
Production designer: Bertram Reiter
Editor: Bettina Mazakarini
Music: Matthias Weber
Venue: Palm Springs International Film Festival