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Jewish International Film Festival
The Tobacconist: Befriending Freud, battling fascism

The Tobacconist: Packed full of historic details from 1930s Vienna
Nikolaus Leytner's film is packed full of historic details from 1930s Vienna | © Beta Films

Set during the Second World War, this thoughtful and reflective drama explores the friendship between a 17-year-old Austrian teen and Professor Sigmund Freud — and it's screening at the Jewish International Film Festival.

By Sarah Ward

Long is the list of films that, by chronicling, exploring and questioning the events of World War II, force cinema’s attention towards Germany. Set in Austria, The Tobacconist joins the pile; however this Austrian-German co-production finds a unique entry point.

Writer/director Nikolaus Leytner (Lemming's First Case) filters the conflict through the friendship between a teenage boy and one of his nation’s most famous figures and finds a canny way to nod to German movie history as well. By enlisting Swiss actor Bruno Ganz to play Professor Sigmund Freud, The Tobacconist conjures up memories of the late actor’s role 32 years ago, when he peered down at Berlin - and he became one of the city’s on-screen symbols - in Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire.
Intentional or not, casting Ganz in a contemplative World War II film sends a message: that Germany’s recent past may still linger, but so do its other moments. While The Tobacconist is hardly the first movie in the actor’s 59-year career to send him strolling through WWII’s dark chapter - in Downfall, he famously played Hitler, for example - the mood and tone of Leytner’s feature encourages viewers to ruminate, and to see more than just what’s on-screen. Simon Morze and Bruno Ganz in "The Tobacconist" Simon Morze and Bruno Ganz in "The Tobacconist" | © Beta Fillms Taking inspiration from Freud’s psychoanalysis, The Tobacconist intersperses its musings on the neurologist’s fictional friendship with 17-year-old Franz (Simon Morze) with the latter’s dreams. In fact, after the pair strike up an acquaintance, the boy would like nothing more than to recline on his new pal’s couch and share the nocturnal contents of his head. Although the film doesn’t ever bring that scene to fruition, it instead dedicates sections to Franz’s slumbering visions, welcoming the audience into a reflective state in the process.


The year is 1937 and, for Franz, change is coming in a multitude of ways. An adolescent who likes nothing more than to sit beneath the lake’s surface near his Attersee home - or to relish the same escape in a water-filled barrel, if necessary - his sense of normality is uprooted when his mother’s (Regina Fritsch) lover is killed in a storm. With the family finances restricted, he is sent to Vienna as an apprentice to tobacconist Otto (Johannes Kirsch). It’s here that he becomes familiar with Freud (Ganz) and his penchant for cigars, falls for cabaret dancer Anezka (Emma Drogunova), and discovers the growing influence of the Nazi party. When Otto earns the scorn of fellow locals for continuing to serve Jewish customers, Freud’s position in the city comes under threat, and fascist attitudes and symbols become commonplace. It’s here that Franz sees how the world’s foundations can prove both slippery and permeable. Emma Drogunova stars beside Simon Morze in "The Tobacconist" Simon Morze's character Franz falls for cabaret dancer Anezka (Emma Drogunova) in "The Tobacconist" | © Beta Films By pushing Franz front and centre, The Tobacconist is a coming-of-age tale from start to finish, with the teen thrust out of his comfort zone, forced to reckon with the world’s ills and driven to discover who he is. The genre is a frequent bedfellow with war movies, and for good reason: combat and the upheaval it causes is an unparalleled catalyst in destabilising a growing heart and mind’s status quo. Still, adapting the novel by Robert Seethaler, Leytner doesn’t let familiarity overly burden his film. The Tobacconist treads a recognisable path, but brandishes its own flavour and texture.


Alas, while Leytner’s film benefits from taking cues from, adopting its tone from and encouraging the same kind of thinking as dreams, the imagined sequences themselves are its weakest element. Whenever one pops up, it distracts from the real-world drama, and not just in the way it’s designed to. That’s a credit to the strength of the movie elsewhere, with Franz’s waking plight proving far more interesting. So too is the detail around him, both big and small.

When he visits the flighty Anezka’s place of work twice, observing how sentiments change from ridiculing the Nazis to entertaining them, The Tobacconist paints a vivid picture. And, when the feature takes a patient approach to Franz’s scenes with Freud, savouring the duo’s time together, it carves out a snapshot of men, young and old, finding commonality against a fraught backdrop.
Visually, The Tobacconist recreates period Vienna with a keen eye; however, alongside its premise and perspective, it’s the film’s performances that stand out. Morze is a capable and earnest guide through Franz’s considerable journey, and his rapport with Ganz - in one of the great talent’s last screen roles before his death in February this year - is both hearty and thoughtful. Ganz, for his part, makes an open and accessible Freud. In keeping with the feature’s intimate but broad view, though, Leytner has just enough time for Kirsch and Drogunova’s memorable performances. Crucial to Franz’s small but shifting realm, they help flesh out The Tobacconist’s intriguing entry point into a well-covered chapter of history.