The late, great Swiss actor Bruno Ganz plays Sigmund Freud in “The Tobacconist,” an imaginative, engrossing tale about a friendship between a teenage boy and Freud set in Vienna just before and during the Nazi invasion.
This was one of the Ganz’s final roles. The actor, who starred in the 2004 film “Downfall” as Adolf Hitler during his final days, died in February 2019.
“The Tobacconist,” released in 2018, is a coming-of-age story of a teenager haunted by vivid, strange dreams full of symbolism and his growing friendship with the famed father of psychoanalysis. The film also traces the growing power of anti-Semitism and the Nazis in Vienna. Unlike other nations, Austria welcomed annexation by Nazi Germany, which makes “The Tobacconist” a cautionary historical tale, as well as a warm, unusual portrait of an elderly Freud.
Visit the St. Louis Jewish Film Festival website for information about discounted online "rentals" of the film, starting July 10, as well as a free online discussion with the filmmakers at noon Thursday, July 16.
Based on a bestselling novel by Robert Seethaler, director Nikolaus Leytner’s German-language film brilliantly blends surreal fantasy, dark humor and history in a story that echoes today’s growing anti-Semitism and nationalist political parties worldwide. The film is also graced with wonderful performances, particularly by Ganz.
When 17-year-old Franz (Simon Morzé) is sent by his mother, Margarete (Regina Fritsch), from the sleepy resort town where he grew up to apprentice with a tobacconist in Vienna, he has given little thought to anti-Semitism or Jews. A dreamy young man, Franz has little connection to the larger world, but the death of his stepfather (Fritz Egger) from a lightning strike while swimming changes his life.
Arriving in the big city of Vienna, Franz remarks to an older woman at the train station about the smell, guessing it is the river. She tells him, no, life stinks here and recommends he return home. That exchange and the absurdity of his stepfather’s accident are typical of the dark, satiric humor that runs through this film.
At the tobacco shop, Franz meets his new employer, Otto (a wonderful Johannes Krisch) a World War I veteran with one leg, a sharp tongue, a good heart and a fierce stance in favor of tolerance, unlike his anti-Semitic neighbor, the butcher Rosshuber (Rainer Wöss).
The little tobacco shop carries cigars and cigarettes as well as newspapers and periodicals, and Otto instructs his new employee in the appreciation of both, as well as their varied customers. Their wide-ranging clientele includes the wives of doctors as well as the local communist (played by Michael Fitz).
But Otto’s most famous customer is Freud, who arrives daily for a newspaper and cigars.
Franz is particularly intrigued by Freud, whom he wants to talk to about his unsettling dreams. Plying the doctor with Cuban cigars, Franz seeks him out repeatedly. Freud treats the boy kindly and grows fond of him, advising him about romance and his dreams. A charmingly warm relationship develops between the famous doctor and this unusual boy.
Like many teens, Franz has a fascination with sex, and he becomes enamored of a young woman from Bohemia named Anezka (Emma Drogunova), who works at a cabaret and may also be a prostitute. The film has a fair amount of adult material and some nudity.
One of the strongest aspects of the film is the stunning photography by cinematographer Hermann Dunzendorfer, beginning with an opening sequence during a thunderstorm at Franz’s lakeside home. The film has a surreal element, with visually striking sequences and Franz’s vivid dreams, which are symbolic and frightening rather than sexual. The symbolism and fantasy aspect appear outside of the dreams as well, alongside the touching realism of the human relationships.
As Franz grapples with his feelings and his friendship with Freud deepens, political and social conditions rapidly deteriorate in Austria. The film does an impressive job balancing its elements, but the relationship between Franz and Freud becomes deeper and shift from an older man helping a younger to the reverse as conditions worsen.
“The Tobacconist” is a touching, heartbreaking tale wrapped in a darkly comic coming-of-age story. In German with English subtitles, it debuts Friday, July 10, through streaming on demand.
For tickets or more information about the St. Louis Jewish Film Festival’s virtual screening or the free Q&A with filmmakers on July 16, visit https://jccstl.com/event/the-tobacconist-virtual-screening-qa.