“THE TOBACCONIST” (“DER TRAFIKANT”)— Coming-of-Age on the Eve of World War II


Coming-of-Age on the Eve of World War II

Amos Lassen

“The Tobacconist” stunningly recreates the late 1930s in Vienna as it captures the tensions in the Austrian capital on the eve of Hitler’s takeover. It is also a coming-of-age story and an intriguing portrayal of Sigmund Freud (Bruno Ganz).

The film opens far from Vienna, in the beautiful lakeside community of Attersee where we see a spectacular lightning storm. The scene is surreal. Franz (Simon Morze), happens upon his mother and her latest lover having passionate sex outdoors as the storm threatens. 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 of her former lovers. The boy starts working as an apprentice to Otto (Johannes Krisch) who is a cynical but generous man. He lost a leg in the First World War and is welcoming to all customers, including Communists and Jews. One of his favored patrons is Dr. Sigmund Freud who loved cigars..

Franz eventually seeks out Freud for advice on his love life. Franz is intensely attracted to Anezka (Emma Drogunova), a woman who just may be a prostitute but certainly has numerous lovers. The Freudian underpinnings of this romance are obvious; 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 has other more pressing concerns with the rising anti-Semitism in Vienna.

The film balances the personal and political stories. 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 includes imaginatively rendered nightmares. The characterizations and performances are strong with Morze is vibrant as Franz, and Krisch just right as the uncompromising tobacconist. Ganz’s Freud is wise and vulnerable at the same time.

Cinematographer Hermann Dunzendorfer and production designer Bertram Reiter bring time and place alive. The film is based on Robert Seethaler’s best-selling novel of the same name. Director Nikolaus Leytner gives us a coming-of-age historical drama set in Nazi-occupied Vienna that follows teenager Franz as apprentice of Otto at his shop. As he settles into the community, he falls in love with dancer Anezka (Emma Drogunova) and befriends Freud (Bruno Ganz) who gives him words of wisdom as Franz experiences vivid dreams.

Each of Franz’s friendships are depicted with great resonance, creating compelling pockets of intimacy that develop within the overarching political landscape of a country on the eve of World War II.

 While Freud isn’t at the center of the  story, but he is pivotal in the film’s thematic exploration of psychoanalysis. Director  Leytner achieves an unusually understated tone for a project that spans a multitude of complex topics.  The ‘smoking all hours’ cigar shop environment is almost microcosmic of a snapshot of history that’s captured so masterfully, and the film lures us into a satisfyingly cinematic Freudian thought. The film isimpressive in its exploration of European history, its depiction of human relationships and coming of age, and its visual style.

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