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Review: 'The Tobacconist' Looks Into Darkness and Finds Light

by Kilian Melloy
Friday Jul 10, 2020
'The Tobacconist'
'The Tobacconist'  

Director Nikolaus Leytner — who also co-writes this film, which is based on the novel by Robert Seethaler — explores the dark dreams and troubled times of 1938, the year Germany annexed Austria to the delight of Nazis and Nazi sympathizers in both nations.

Such is not 17-year-old Franz (Simon Morzé). Pushed out of the nest after a tragedy affects the family finances, Frantz leaves his peaceful rural home for the big city of Vienna, where a job has been arranged for him with a tobacconist named Otto (Johannes Krisch), an old friend of his mother (and, possibly, Franz's father).

Franz — like Otto — has no problem selling leftist newspapers to communists, good cigarettes to early feminists, or fine cigars to Jewish people, including the world-famous Sigmund Freud (Bruno Ganz, "Wings of Desire"), who comes into the shop from time to time to buy his cigars two boxes at a time. Freud and Franz forge a friendship — tentative at first, but propelled by Franz's troubling anxiety dreams and his youthful devotion to a Bohemian woman named Anezka (Emma Drogunova).

Like any young man in his position (or in a coming of age movie like this one), Franz fails to grasp that his relationship with Anezka is essentially transactional; she's happy to spend time with him, or with Nazi officers, or with anyone who will buy her dinner. Her worldliness strikes Franz as sophistication, but underneath is a sad surrender to the darkness eating at the world — a darkness that Franz's own mother, many miles away in a rural corner of the country, staves off with creative deflections.

When the Nazis finally do arrive, the world changes around Franz with alarming rapidity. But a few things remain constant, among them his devotion to Anezka and his friendship with the famous Professor Freud. But Franz's own innocent, integral consistency might work against him as he confronts an encroaching evil so twisted and hateful that he simply can neither comprehend it, nor back down from confronting it as best he can.

Throughout his experiences, Franz carries a fragment of his earlier, more peaceful life: A fragment of glass he retrieved from the bottom of a lake near his house. Using that glass, Franz casts light — literally — into the lives of those around him. In a similar fashion, this film meditates on the recurrent darkness of human history, and the savage impulses that drive it from one episode of bloodshed to the next, but focuses on the light that suffuses even the darkest patches. "I don't know where it's headed," Franz writes his mother, after all seems either lost or about to be; "but life will go on."

That's as good a tag line as any for a film that is open to the full experience of human life: The pain, the hope, and the stubborn persistence of essential goodness in perpetual counterbalance to witless evil. There's pleasure, after all, to be found in the simple act of living, even when life seems encircled and imperiled by forces seemingly bent on snuffing life out.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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