Nikolaus Leytner’s “The Tobacconist ” is an entertaining coming-of-age drama of a friendship between an older boy and Sigmund Freud, during the Nazi rise to power. Although the romantic subplot is very familiar, the performances are lively and heartfelt, which makes this period piece compelling.
Franz (Simon Morze’) is an adolescent boy both fascinated and troubled by sex. A huge crucifix is over his bed and the boy is easily startled. Though Franz has strong feelings, he can’t seem to act on them. After his father’s death from a lightning strike, Franz’s mother (Regina Fritsch) sends him to live with a family friend Otto (Johannes Krisch) a self deprecating cigar and magazine shop owner in Vienna.
Franz stocks the shop and assists Otto on occasion, as Otto is an amputee. Day after day, the respected Otto is harassed by followers of the new National Socialist Party. He sends them away.
A humble professor is a regular patron. The professor is no less than Sigmund Freud.
Freud (Bruno Ganz) tells Franz that he should get out more and experience life. Why doesn’t he try to meet a girl?
Franz walks to a beer garden and sees a charismatic Czech girl (Emma Drogunova) who pushes him out of his fog. Franz is enthralled yet stricken with shyness and self doubt.
A chuckling Freud tells him to keep going and to write down his dreams to understand his low self esteem.
The film is held together by the strength of its characters. Simon Morze’ has a quirky vulnerability as a kind of “Walter Mitty” while Emma Drogunova has a vivacious and engaging and even reckless quality.
The late Bruno Ganz is terrific as the iconic psychoanalyst. His quietly spirited performance is without a shred of satire. Warm with affect and understated, this performance has a stirring authenticity.
The film also has to its credit some eerily mysterious dream sequences that can be seen as an homage to Freud. In one segment Franz falls into a lake. Falling deeper and deeper as if into outer space, the boy curls into a fetus, becoming a hybrid of an alien and a homunculus.
In waking life, Franz tries to hold on as long as he can. Nazis intrude upon the shop more and more with threats and violence. The boy covers the windows with pages from his dream diary, as if to cover up the graffiti swastikas that appear like sudden running sores.
In Leytner’s hands, the often used material of a WWII period drama becomes fresh because of some sharp observations, striking imagery and nimble performances.
“The Tobacconist,” from a novel by Robert Seethaler, succeeds because it is not just about Freud or Nazism, but also about a young boy’s desire and the ability of dreams to both warn us and point to way to different experiments in living.
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