Thursday, July 09, 2020

The Tobacconist: Bruno Ganz is Sigmund Freud

This film teaches the pleasures of fine cigar, so enjoy it while you can. Coincidentally, it is also about the rise of a totalitarian regime. Coming of age is never easy, but it gets rather perilous for a na├»ve teen living in Vienna on the eve of the National Socialist takeover. At least he has access to first-rate counsel in Nikolaus Leytner’s The Tobacconist, which releases virtually tomorrow in New York.

When Franz Huchel’s mother suddenly loses the protection of her older lover, she packs him off to Vienna to work in Otto Trsnjek’s tabak. Apparently, they had a fling years ago, during more care-free times. The film openly invites viewers to speculate Trsnjek, the WWI veteran-amputee, may in fact be Huchel’s father, but the thought apparently never crosses the lad’s mind. Nevertheless, Trsnjek becomes a crusty father figure to Huchel, but for problems of the heart, he turns to their celebrated customer, Prof. Sigmund Freud. Remember, he always had a lot to say about cigars.

uchel has fallen for the Bavarian Anezka, who you could safely say is much more experienced than he. Perhaps even professionally so. That could very well spell considerable heartache for Huchel, but Freud will be the first to explain to him love does not always make sense. Yet, if The Tobacconist sounds something like Il Postino, with Freud replacing Neruda, than keep in mind the rise of Hitler’s regime is equally weighted with Huchel’s personal drama, until the micro is logically and tragically consumed by the macro.

In fact, Trsnjek could be the sort of radical centrist hero the times are calling out for. The tobacconist is openly contemptuous of Communists, but he still lets them patronize his store, whereas National Socialists are not welcome. Obviously, this policy will cause a great deal of strife as the winds shift in favor of demagogues and statists.

Somehow, Leytner and screenwriter Klaus Richter (who adapted Robert Seethaler’s novel) mostly get the balance right. Frankly, their approach is often downright Freudian, especially the interludes depicts Huchel’s increasingly turbulent dreams. Freud’s scenes with young Huchel are saturated with wistful humanism, but they are never cute, trite, or shticky. These are serious life conversations that just happen to be conducted against an ominous historical backdrop.

Of course, a major reason it all works so well is the effortlessly graceful performance of the late, great Bruno Ganz as Freud. Watching him, viewers can see how casual acquaintances can suddenly blossom into something deeper. (When film societies and museums re-open, one of them should consider a Ganz retrospective.) Simon Morze is also quite compelling portraying Huchel, as circumstances force him to mature and make moral decisions. Yet, Johannes Krisch’s uncompromising portrait of Trsnjek could well be the ghost that haunts the audience after screening The Tobacconist.

Leytner’s film does not show the systematic crimes against humanity committed by National Socialism, but it fully displays the casual, petty cruelty of its followers. It personalizes the fear and humiliations. Sometimes the dream sequences are a bit overblown, but otherwise it is a remarkably well-executed literary adaptation, with a keen understanding of history and human nature. Highly recommended, The Tobacconist releases virtually tomorrow (7/10), for the New York market, via Menemsha Films and Kino Marquee.