July 13, 2020
by Carla Hay
Directed by Nikolaus Leytner
German with subtitles
Culture Representation: Taking place in Nazi-occupied Austria in the late 1930s, the drama “The Tobacconist” has an all-white cast representing the middle-class and working class.
Culture Clash: A 17-year-old boy moves from rural Austria to the big city of Vienna to work at a tobacco shop, whose owner refuses to live by Nazi ideals.
Culture Audience: “The Tobacconist” will appeal to people who like European arthouse coming-of-age dramas that have themes of political oppression and social justice.
Based on Robert Seethaler’s 2012 best-selling novel, the dramatic film “The Tobacconist” is an effective coming-of-age story that shows how a 17-year-old boy learns about some of life’s harsh realities while working at a tobacco shop and befriending Sigmund Freud in Nazi-occupied Vienna. Under the artful direction of Nikolaus Leytner (who co-wrote the adapted screenplay with Klaus Richter), “The Tobacconist” is a worthy cinematic retelling of this poignant story that will have an emotional impact on viewers.
“The Tobacconist,” which takes place in Austria in 1937 and 1938, begins with a rainstorm that changes the lives of 17-year-old Franz Huchel (played by Simon Morzé) and his single mother Margarethe (Regina Fritsch), nicknamed Gretl, who both live in the rural town of Salzkammergut of Austria. Franz seems to be terrified of being outside during a storm, so he runs home and jumps into bed to hide underneath the sheets as the storm begins. Meanwhile, Margarethe is having sex outside in the woods with her landlord Preininger Lois (played by Fritz Egger), who impulsively decides to swim in a nearby lake when they’re done. (Franz’s father is not seen or mentioned in the story.)
Preininger’s impromptu swim in the lake during the storm turns out to be a fatal mistake, since he is struck by lightning and immediately drowns. His death leaves Magarethe, who works as a maid, in a precarious financial situation for the house that she was renting from Preininger. It’s implied that she had a consensual “arrangement” with Preininger where he would give her a discount on the rent, in exchange for her being a tenant with “sexual benefits.”
But with Preininger now dead, Margarethe can no longer afford the rent, so she decides to send Franz to live in the capital city of Vienna and work for the owner of a tobacco shop named Otto Trsnyek (played by Johannes Krisch), who is an acquaintance of Margarethe. The plan is for Franz to send some of his earnings to his mother to help her out financially and he’ll communicate with her by written correspondence, since she cannot afford a telephone. Franz will live rent-free in the back room of the tobacco shop, in exchange for protecting the shop when it’s closed.
Franz is very sheltered, so moving to a city like Vienna is big culture shock for him. He’s so reluctant to leave behind the only life that he knows, that when the day comes for him to board a train to Vienna, he hides from his mother by submerging himself in a barrel full of water. Drowning and being submerged in water are constant visual themes in the movie. Franz is underwater in many of his nightmares, all of which are filmed in a very hypnotic, artsy way.
Franz also has an active imagination when he’s awake. One of the recurring visual tricks of “The Tobacconist” is showing certain things happen in a scene, only for viewers to find out that what happened was really in Franz’s head. What happened in reality is shown immediately afterward. Franz’s fantasies usually involve Franz being more confident and assertive that he really is. This is especially true when Franz has to confront his fears and insecurities in angry conflicts or matters of the heart.
Otto, who is in his 50s, is a no-nonsense boss, but he also has a strong sense of fairness and compassion for others. Otto (who is not married and does not mention having any children) also has a certain loneliness that he expresses when he tells Franz that the tobacco products in his shop are Otto’s “acquaintances.” A veteran of World War I, Otto is missing one leg, which he presumably lost in the war, but that doesn’t hinder his ability to get around, since he uses crutches.
Franz is an eager and willing apprentice to Otto, who slowly starts to warm up to his new assistant. One of the things that Franz notices about Otto is that even though the Nazis have been increasing their totalitarian presence in Vienna, Otto does not bow to the pressure of showing allegiance to Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime.
For example, Otto does not discriminate against Jewish people, including Sigmund Freud, who is one of the shop’s loyal customers. Even though Freud (played by Bruno Ganz) is a local celebrity, the anti-Semitism in Nazi-occupied Vienna has become so prevalent and encouraged, that it’s become increasingly dangerous for Freud and other Jewish people to live in Vienna. “The Tobacconist” shows how this type of cancerous hatred doesn’t happen overnight but can spread slowly through society.
Coming from a sheltered environment, Franz is at first unaware of how different life could be for Jewish people who live in the same city. When Franz first meets Freud (who’s in his 80s), Franz doesn’t even know who Freud is until Otto tells Franz that Freud is a world-famous psychiatrist and professor. Otto introduces his new employee to Freud, who tells Franz that since he’s new to Vienna, he should find a girl to occupy his time. When Franz (who’s a virgin) tells Freud that he doesn’t know anything about love, Freud replies by saying that that no one really knows anything about love.
Franz takes Freud’s advice to find a girlfriend, so he going to a village square in his free time to try and meet new people. People are dancing in the square, and a pretty young woman who’s slightly older than Franz catches his eye. In Franz’s imaginative mind, she asks him to dance and they start to kiss passionately. In reality, she gently rebuffs his advances, but she gives him a quick kiss on the cheek to let him know that she likes him.
Franz is smitten with this mystery girl, but in the meantime, he gets a rude awakening about the anti-Semitism in Vienna when Otto’s shop is vandalized. The store’s front-door sign has been defaced with animal blood, and Otto immediately accuses the butcher next door, Herr Rosshuber (played by Rainer Wöss), who is a Nazi sympathizer. Otto tells Herr Rosshuber that he’s not scared of him and he won’t hesitate to physically fight him if the vandalism happens again. Frau Rosshuber (played by Sabine Herget), the wife who works in the butcher shop, witnesses the conflict and hisses to Otto: “Jew lover!”
Seeing this hateful bigotry up-close makes Franz feel very uncomfortable, but he also has increased respect for Otto, because Franz also has the same social-justice ideals. Franz confides in Otto about the crush he has on the girl from the village square. Otto advises Franz to pursue the girl, and Otto hints that he has regrets about his own love life when he tells Franz that he learned the hard way not to let love get away.
Franz takes Otto’s advice and goes back to the place where he met her, asks around, and ends up bribing a local shop owner to tell him the girl’s name and where she lives. The shop owner warns Franz in a crude way that she has a reputation for being a cheap floozy, but Franz doesn’t care.
When he tracks the girl down at her home, he finds out that she’s a Bohemian living in a crowded, poverty-stricken hovel. However, Franz is unfazed by the unsavory living conditions and only cares about letting her know that he’s interested in dating her. It’s here that Franz finds out that her name is Anezka (played by Emma Drogunova), and she’s so flattered by Franz’s earnest and romantic attention, that she agrees to go on a dinner date with him.
Franz’s raging hormones and his crush on Anezka fuel his interest in sex and losing his virginity. He’s curious to learn more about sex, so he looks at Otto’s stash of illegal pornography magazines, which Otto keeps locked in a store drawer. Otto makes extra money on the side by letting some of his male customers look at the magazines.
While part of this movie’s story is about Franz falling in love and discovering sex for the first time, the ominous and oppressive presence of the Nazis in Vienna and the rest of Austria have far-reaching consequences that deeply affect people’s lives. Franz’s views of the world and his life are forever changed by what he experiences after working at Otto’s tobacco shop.
The cast’s performances in “The Tobacconist” are completely believable, while Leytner elevates the story with plenty of compelling visuals, especially in Franz’s dream sequences. (And the dreams are quite fitting, considering that Freud pioneered the psychiatric practice of interpreting dreams.) Ganz, a Swiss actor who died in 2019 at the age of 77, does a marvelous portrayal as Freud, who has a cynical, world-weary quality to him, but he is charmed and reminded of the innocence of youth when he befriends Franz. Morzé is also impressive as Franz, who goes through an emotional journey and maturity that he did not expect when he first moved to Vienna.
There are several movies that show the widespread horror of how Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany affected people’s lives. But “The Tobacconist” is more of microcosm of how this terrible evil reached a small tobacco shop in Vienna and had a ripple effect on the people who viewed the shop as their neighborhood comfort zone.
Menemsha Films released “The Tobacconist” in select U.S. cinemas on July 10, 2020.