The Tobacconist


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

The Tobacconist
"This is Freud as we rarely see him, human and approachable and a bit baffled by the idea of having a young fan." | Photo: Courtesy of EIFF

Sigmund Freud wrote about a great many things in his lifetime but ask the average person about him and the first thing they'll mention will be his work on sex. Set in the mid-1930s, just before the Anschluss, Nikolaus Leytner's film, which captures him almost in passing, is a reminder that for part of his life at least he had far more urgent concerns. It's told from the perspective of young Franz (Simon Morzé), who, still in his teens, has an excuse for having little besides sex on his mind, and who is delighted to have access to the man he considers to be the world's foremost expert to help him figure it out - but in time he will come to realise that there's much more going on around him.

It's a tobacconist's job to know all his customers well, says Herr Tsrnjek (Johannes Krisch), the man to whom Franz is apprenticed. He's a former lover of Franz's mother and has agreed to take on the boy, whom she can no longer support in her home village of Attersee since the death of her more recent partner (who is struck by lightning in the dramatic opening sequence), and he proves a gentle master. Known for his willingness to serve all Vienna's people, including the widely resented Jews and Communists, he also takes an interest in the youth's hapless romantic pursuits and tries to support him - but it is Freud, who visits regularly for the cigars he loves (he would die a few years later from a cancer common in cigar smokers) who attracts the boy's excited attention.

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Played by Bruno Ganz shortly before his death (and just before his work with Terence Malick in A Hidden Life), this is Freud as we rarely see him, human and approachable and a bit baffled by the idea of having a young fan, not least due to the boy's peculiar obsession with his couch. He's baffled, likewise, by the idea that the Nazis could ever really find purchase in this cosmopolitan city. In and out of his home before long, Franz catches glimpses of conversations he doesn't really understand - old friends of the psychoanalyst urging him to leave the country and seek refuge elsewhere. Day to day, however, life seems very ordinary, the odd antisemitic incident no cause for general panic.

Although he reads the papers as his master instructs him to, Franz doesn't really pay attention to the news. All his thoughts are focused on Anezka (Emma Drogunova), whom both the older men advise him to pursue to the point where he verges on stalking behaviour. Anezka is attracted to him but clearly not interested in a relationship. By capturing her perspective and Franz's naivety effectively (but without making Franz unsympathetic) the film gently passes comment both on the objectification of women in psychoanalytic theory and on the gap between the male world and that of the far more worldly-wise female characters who have long since got to grips with doing whatever they need to to survive, something the male characters urgently need to accept.

Hermann Dunzendorfer's cinematography brings the cobbled streets and crowded plazas of the city to life. There's wonderful detail in the set dressing and costume work, immersing the viewer in this beautiful yet uneasy time and place. Positioned as he is at the heart of the community, Herr Tsrnjek cannot help but be aware of what is happening, and his determination to persist in welcoming everyone is one of those small acts of heroism too easily forgotten, the kind that hold societies together for a little while longer. Franz, meanwhile, learns about a lot more than just sex and cigars.

Reviewed on: 08 Jul 2020
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The Tobacconist packshot
A young man befriends Sigmund Freud.
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Director: Nikolaus Leytner

Writer: Klaus Richter, Nikolaus Leytner, Robert Seethaler

Starring: Simon Morzé, Bruno Ganz, Johannes Krisch, Emma Drogunova, David Altman, Christoph Bittenauer, Gerti Drassl, Karoline Eichhorn, Michael Fitz, Regina Fritsch, Tom Hanslmaier, Erni Mangold, Thomas Mraz, Vicky Nikolaevskaja, Tobias Ofenbauer

Year: 2018

Runtime: 117 minutes

Country: Austria, Germany


EIFF 2019

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