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
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.