Nikolaus Leytner’s The Tobacconist, a German-language feature film set in late-1930s Vienna, fleshes out an imaginary friendship between a young Austrian man and the celebrated psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud. Unfolding against the Nazi takeover of Austria, it is a jolting reminder of how easily a tolerant society can accommodate itself to totalitarianism and racism.
The main character in The Tobacconist, now playing in U.S. theaters, is a 17-year-old country boy named Franz Huchel (Simon Morze). He finds a job as an apprentice in the modest tobacco shop of Otto Trsynek (Johannes Krisch), a crippled World War I veteran who hobbles around with crutches. Franz has been sent to Vienna by his mother, who seems to have had an affair with Trsynek when she was much younger.
An anti-Nazi, Trsynek sells a variety of newspapers, but refuses to carry the local National Socialist rag. When a customer asks for it, he practically orders him to leave. Trsynek’s views are known to Nazi sympathizers in the neighborhood. A next-door-butcher denounces him as a “Jew lover.”
One of Trsynek’s regular customers is the legendary Freud (Bruno Ganz), a soft-spoken bearded gentleman who’s partial to expensive Cuban cigars. Franz confides in Freud, telling him about Anezka (Emma Drogunova), an attractive, high-spirited young woman who disappeared after their first meeting.
Tracking down Anezka in a flophouse, Franz asks what she does for a living. “This and that,” she replies. They have sex, and in short order Franz informs Freud of his “wonderful experience.”
Much to his dismay, Franz discovers that Anezka is a stripper in a cabaret. Attempting to come to terms with this jarring revelation, he launches into a conversation with Freud about love. By now, Franz has developed an almost father-son relationship with the great man.
With German troops having invaded Austria, the situation grows increasingly dire for opponents of the Nazis. Thugs break into Trsynek’s shop, vandalize it and scrawl the words “Jew lover!” and “Communist pig!” on the walls. In white paint, they leave another message: “The Jews buy here.” This, presumably, is a reference to Freud..
Freud, meanwhile, is preparing to go into exile in London. He doesn’t really want to leave his beloved Vienna, but he has no choice, as Franz eventually recognizes.
Austria is presented as a country ripe for the picking by Germany. The cabaret in which Anezka performs is a case in point. Before Germany’s annexation of Austria, a comedian lampooned Hitler mercilessly. But after the Anschluss, the master of ceremonies cracks crude antisemitic jokes.
Ganz, who portrayed Adolf Hitler in the absorbing German movie Downfall, slips seamlessly into Freud’s skin. Morze delivers an assured performance and Krisch and Drogunova acquit themselves with ease as well.
The Tobacconist, an engaging coming-of-age story, recreates a time and a place with exactitude.