Tag Archives: B

THE TOBACCONIST (DER TRAFIKANT)

Producers: Dieter Pochiatko, Jakob Pochiatko and Ralf Zimmerman   Director: Nikolaus Leytner   Screenplay: Klaus Richter and Nikolaus Leytner   Cast: Simon Morzé, Bruno Ganz, Johannes Krisch, Emma Drogunova, Regina Fritsche and Karoline Eichhorn   Distributor: Menemsha Films

Grade:  B

Most films about the Holocaust are frighteningly intense, but a few take a gentler approach.  This is one of them.  Adapted from Robert Seethaler’s 2012 novel, it resembles movies like “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” (2008) and “The Book Thief” (2013) that concentrated on youngsters learning the cruel lessons that living under Nazism taught.  In other words, it’s a coming-of-age story in an age when horrors abounded but occur mostly off-screen.

It also offers a portrait of Sigmund Freud as a lovable old man. 

The focus of the tale, however, is on young Franz Huchel (Simon Morzé), a naïve teenager who lives with his mother Margarete (Reginsa Fritsche) near Austria’s Lake Attersee.  When her latest protector dies from a lightning strike while swimming, Margarete, who makes a living as a maid in rich people’s homes, sends the boy to Vienna to apprentice with one of her former lovers Otto Trsnjek (Johannes Krisch).  H owns a tobacco shop that also sells postcards, newspapers, and stationery, along with racy magazines under the counter.  One of his regulars is Freud (Bruno Ganz), who seems to drop in every day to purchase his regular quota of cigars.

The year is 1938, and the Anschluss is imminent.  Otto, who lost a leg serving in World War I and is a cantankerously contrarian old fellow, is devoutly opposed to the widespread support that will greet the arrival of Hitler’s troops into Austria, and welcomes Jews and Communists into his shop, much to the displeasure of the right-wing butcher across the square.

But Franz is not interested in such matters.  He’s much more concerned with girls, and asks Freud, whose practice Otto tells him about, for advice.  The psychologist suggests that, on the one hand, he should keep a record of his dreams, and that, on the other, he should  make an effort to approach a young lady. 

The boy follows his admonitions, and one element of director Nikolaus Leytner’s toolbox from then on will be to insert surrealistic dream episodes, often involving the lake of Franz’s childhood, into the narrative, and then show the boy scribbling reminiscences of them into his journal.  In addition, Franz awkwardly introduces himself to Anezka (Emma Drogunova), whom he meets at a street fair.  She is a Bohemian, literally and figuratively, and after a drink, a dance and a kiss goes off without another word.  But Franz can’t stop pining after her, and Freud, who is becoming rather like a father-confessor, advises him to track her down. 

What Franz discovers does not please him.  Anezka seems to have a great many male companions, and is hardly embarrassed about it.  She also performs a risqué routine in a dumpy club.  Still, Franz cannot stop obsessing over her.

While the boy grows up in that respect, he must also face the changes that are going on in the city around him.  Austria has been annexed to the Third Reich, and Otto’s little shop is repeatedly vandalized for his progressive views.  Even Freud is threatened by those who are now in power.

Eventually Otto is arrested and taken to Gestapo headquarters, where he is kept incommunicado.  And when Franz seeks out Anezka again at the club, he finds that the choice she makes is one based on pragmatism of a crudest kind.  (One of the cleverest notes in the film is the transformation of the place, from one that specialized in satire about Hitler to one that now revels in vicious anti-Semitic jokes.)

By now Franz is driven to make choices as well, which involve not only testifying to his desires by posting his journal entries in the shop windows and urging Freud to leave Vienna, but protesting the treatment of Otto in a fashion that will inevitably call the attention of the authorities to him.  That marks a clear contrast with earlier moments in the film, when Franz imagines what he should do in various circumstances before we are shown his actual hesitancy to act.  Along with the dream sequences and periodic cuts to what Margarete is enduring back home, these can either be embraced as imaginative expansions of the narrative or irritating affectations.

What’s indisputable is that the film has been handsomely made, with Hermann Dunzendorfer’s cinematography giving luster to the images, both those that are “realistic” and those that are dreamlike.  Bertram Reiter’s production design is also excellent, although budgetary limitations are reflected in the relatively few locations and the paucity of crowds in street scenes.  Editor Bettina Mazakarini copes as well as one might hope with the sudden shifts from straight narrative to dream, and Matthias Weber’s score adds some elegant touches.

So do the cast, especially Ganz, whose Freud is a charming old coot, and Krisch, whose Otto is the very image of the crusty, righteous old man.  Morzé is a bit of a stolid blank slate as Franz, but that’s intentional,  while Drogunova is the opposite as the giddily exuberant but calculating Anezka.  Everyone else is nicely supportive.

“The Tobacconist” will not sear its way into the memory the way more harrowing depictions of Nazi malignancy have done, but its more understated approach is quietly moving.   

RELIC

Producers: Anna McLeish, Sarah Shaw, Jake Gyllenhaal and Riva Marker   Director: Natalie Erika James   Screenplay: Natalie Erika James and Christian White   Cast: Emily Mortimer, Robyn Nevin, Bella Heathcote, Chris Bunton, Jeremy Stanford and Steve Rodgers   Distributor: IFC Midnight

Grade:  B

Natalie Erika James’s “Relic” doesn’t revolutionize the haunted house movie, but it’s certainly a spooky and atmospheric reworking of an old formula, bolstered by strong performances from its trio of leading ladies.

The story is set almost exclusively at a remote estate in a forested area some distance from Melbourne.  Kay (Emily Mortimer), who works in the city, arrives there with her daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) to visit her mother Edna (Robyn Nevin).  But they find her gone, and the house dark and disordered; they also find post-it notes adorning the walls with reminders Edna has written to herself.  Most are innocuous, but others have a vaguely sinister tone.  At best they suggest Edna is forgetful, at worst that she’s experiencing the beginnings of dementia. 

Concerned over Edna’s absence, Kay calls in the local constable (Mike Adler), who organizes a search of the woods, with no effect.  She also has an encounter with Edna’s young neighbor Jamie (Chris Bunton), a boy with Down’s syndrome, whose father Alex (Jeremy Stanford) will explain to Sam why his son is no longer allowed inside the house—the result of a painful experience Edna inflicted on the boy, locking him inside a closet.

While Edna remains absent, Kay is unnerved by a dream involving an old cabin in the woods with her mother inside.  When she goes in, she encounters a decrepit old man alone, and awakens as black mold covers the cabin’s windows.  Meanwhile Sam feels a frightening chill in that closet where she senses someone—or something—beside her.

In the morning, Edna has suddenly reappeared in the house, refusing to say where she’d been.  Kay calls in a doctor to check on Edna’s health, and though he finds nothing physically wrong—apart from a mark on her chest—she begins to consider moving her mother to a nursing home in the city.

Over the following days Edna’s moods shift radically.  At one moment she can give Sam a family heirloom or invite the girl to dance with her to the strains of an old record, only to turn on her with loud accusations and complain that the house seems to be changing.  Sam even finds Edna cutting herself.

Kay becomes increasingly convinced that the cabin she sees in her dreams—where, she explains to Sam, her great-grandfather died alone and mad—is the source of what’s occurring.   She becomes even more convinced when she follows Edna into the woods and watches her try to devour photos from the family scrapbooks, which she then tries to bury.  Meanwhile Sam investigates the closet, only to find herself trapped in a labyrinth that seems to prove that the house has a mind of its own.  And the fact that parts of the old cabin were used in making the house—like the stained-glass window in the front door—may well be the cause of the malignancy that now inhabits it. 

The final act of “Relic” sees a further transformation in Edna—one that’s not only emotional but physical.  It closes with a choice made by Kay and Sam about her that suggests that whatever curse lies upon the family is indeed multi-generational.

James, her co-writer Christian White,  cinematographer Charlie Sarroff, production designer Steve Jones-Evans, editors Denise Haratzis and Sean Lahiff and composer Brian Reitzell have collaborated expertly to create a mood of dark, claustrophobic menace that builds cumulatively over the course of the film, and the effects created by Ceri Nicholls, Hauk Olafsson, Murray Curtis and Gene Hammond Lewis are unnervingly first-rate (as is the sound design), especially down the home stretch.  For a low-budget production, “Relic” is visually and aurally compelling.

Its power is enhanced by the performances of Mortimer, Nevin and Heathcote.  Each of them captures the essence of her character, with Nevin standing out as the elderly victim of a force she fears but ultimately can’t resist submitting to.  This is basically a three-person chamber piece, and it could not work if all the leads weren’t superb.  Happily, they are.

The result is a film that whose level of imagination is stronger in execution rather than in basic storytelling, but the excellence of realization easily compensates for a fairly predictable narrative arc.