The Tobacconist charts the rise of Nazism in 1930s Vienna
(Photo: Menemsha Films)

The Tobacconist is a story about one young man and his friendship with Sigmund Freud during the Nazi occupation of Vienna.

Nikolaus Leytner’s The Tobacconist is marked by uneasy tensions. When a chance tragedy upends a Christian family’s peaceful rural life, they send their only son Franz (Simon Morze) to pre-Reich Vienna to apprentice with family friend Otto Trsnjek, a one-legged tobacconist and Great War vet, as Nazism encroaches on the city.

Johannes Krisch gives the title character a sparky warmth that’s matched by his favored client, an aging and largely domesticated Sigmund Freud (the now-late Bruno Ganz). Both elderly Jews, they mentor Franz, linked by their stubbornness and taste for pleasure (“a very good cigar tastes like the world,” Trsnjek says). Their indulgences create a straightforward, easy bond in which connection over culture and taste seems to transcend class distinctions.

The film has plenty of erotic material. Franz is enamored of a cabaret dancer; Trsnjek sells porn rags in plain brown bags; and Freud is, well, Sigmund Freud. Leytner approaches all this with the same lack of irony as his characters’ cigar fixation. They are subjects without palpable heat.

With a visual style defined by loamy browns and sepias, every shot here’s nearly monochrome. A handful of CGI dream sequences are filmed in heavy, overbearing blues that recall last year’s Judy. Desire, pleasure and adolescent feeling are threatened by the shadow of Nazism, as in Cabaret. But Laytner feels more at home with the opinionated codgers than he does his young lead, leaving Franz’s inner life, like Freud’s ideas, more signified than felt.

Charting Nazism’s growth within Vienna, the span in which a trickle of hateful ideology swells into a flood, is what The Tobacconist shows best. Bursting from fringe pamphlets into mainstream editorials and comedy shows, hate speech and harassment switfly become the regional climate. This will prove familiar to anyone contending with our present international waves of fascistic governance and hate.

As a Christian, Franz is personally insulated from the approaching Holocaust. The Tobacconist might be a bolder film if it showed him becoming more seduced. Still, by the end, privilege renders him complicit. Franz never says “Heil Hitler” to anyone, but eventually makes a half-surrender, replying to a neighbor: “Same to you.”

Details: You can rent The Tobacconist while supporting local theaters. Rent through the Lenore Marwil Jewish Detroit Film Festival and the Detroit Film Theatre through Aug. 7, or through the Michigan Theater at michtheater.org/screenings/the-tobacconist. After your purchase, you have five days to watch.

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