As premises go, The Tobacconist has an interesting one: a young man moves to Vienna to apprentice in a tobacco shop, only to become friendly with one of the store’s regular customers, Sigmund Freud. On its face, a set-up like that could go in any number of directions. Where filmmaker Nikolaus Leytner decides to take it, however—based on his and Klaus Richter’s script, adapted from Robert Seethaler’s novel—is someplace that’s not quite edgy enough for its somber setting and not quite quirky enough for the unlikely friendship at its center.
We meet Franz Huchel (Simon Morzé) as a teen living with his mother in a rural village in Austria, exploring the countryside around their quaint cottage and with a particular penchant for the world that exists in the water of the lake that borders their house. A severe thunderstorm strikes, and as Franz goes running home to safety, his mother’s lover decides to embrace the turbulent weather and go for a swim. This does not end well, and without a man in the house, Margarete (Regina Fritsch) decides to send Franz off to the city for his own good. Young and impressionable, Franz is immediately taken with the new adventure and his mentor, Otto (Johannes Krisch), a WWI veteran who lost a leg fighting for his country. Now, with his shop in the center of town next to the butcher and other essentials, Otto sells cigarettes, cigars, newspapers and the occasional dirty magazine to the all the locals he knows by name.
An odd thing happens in The Tobacconist as Franz settles in to his new life in the city: it can’t quite decide what kind of film it wants to be. With our young protagonist at its center, it’s a coming-of-age drama, all raging hormones and defending the honor of the one you love—with none other than Dr. Freud (Bruno Ganz) as Franz’s sounding board and BFF. But then, given the era in which it’s set, it aims for something much more serious, much heavier: a cautionary tale in the early days of the Third Reich. Yeah, it goes there.
That Leynter can’t decide which sort of film he’s making is probably the fault of the source material; the novel likely has much more time to explore Franz’s journey and all its nuances. In this film adaptation, despite Morzé’s affecting performance as a young man trying to figure it all out, there never exists much reason to care whether he finds his way or not. At a local fair, he falls for Anezka (Emma Drogunova), a charming young thing who turns out to be a performer in a local burlesque show. Franz is so infatuated, he pursues her blindly, insistent that they have a future together. Every time Freud comes by the shop, he inquires about the work the psychologist does and updates him on his latest escapades with Anezka. Soon, the two are meeting as friends and confidants, chatting about life and love, the subtext of Franz’s dreams and the importance of finding one’s way in the world.
In the midst of Franz’s evolution from a boy to a man, Vienna becomes the latest conquest in the early days of Hitler’s occupation tour. The anti-Semitic butcher next door begins threatening Otto’s tobacco shop, and soon swastikas are unfurled on all the municipal buildings in town. It all escalates quickly, and as Franz and his mother exchange postcards back and forth (a solid plot device to clock the passage of time), it becomes clear that their lives are changing whether they’re ready for it or not. Introducing something like the Nazi regime into a story that until that point has been something fairly light and unsuspecting has a jarring effect, to say the least. Something like that can’t be an afterthought or a subplot, which is what it feels like in The Tobacconist to a large degree. Are we supposed to root for Franz and his journey to adulthood? Are we supposed to invest in Otto’s commendable resistance to a threatening, oppressive regime? Is there any in-between?
Perhaps as a book, The Tobacconist has the space it needs to make Franz an interesting enough young man to cheer for through misguided romances and Nazi occupations, not to mention one very odd friendship with Sigmund Freud. Unfortunately, the film adaptation never comes to a certain conclusion about any of it, leaving all of it to fall a bit short.
The Tobacconist is now playing as part of Gene Siskel Film Center’s Film Center from Your Sofa.