The unlikely fictional friendship between Sigmund Freud and a teenage boy in Vienna on the eve of World War II is at the heart of a poignant film streaming online in US cinemas on July 10.
“The Tobacconist” is a personal and political coming-of-age story in the shadow of the Anschluss, the annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany. It is based on the popular novel of the same name by Man Booker International Prize finalist Robert Seethaler.
The German-language feature film’s timeline spans from late summer 1937 to June 1938, when Freud and his family manage to leave Vienna for safety in London. Seventeen-year-old Franz Huchel’s single mother sends him from their home in the resort town of Attersee to Vienna to work for one of her former lovers, tobacco shop owner Otto Trsnjek (Johannes Krisch). Franz soon falls head over heels for a mysterious young Moravian immigrant named Anezka (Emma Drogunova), and he asks Freud — a regular customer of Trsnjek’s shop — for advice in wooing her.
“No one knows anything about love, especially me,” Freud protests. “I’ve gotten over my libido years ago.”
Nonetheless, the elderly father of psychoanalysis takes the persistent teen under his wing. Freud’s famous couch is out of bounds, however. The professor listens and then dispenses his witticisms in cafés, and on walks and sidewalk benches.
Over the next half year, the naïve Franz experiences a gradual rude awakening about Anezka’s true nature, and about the brutality of Nazi occupation. The one-legged World War I veteran Trsnjek refuses to carry Nazi newspapers, and counts Jews and Communists among his welcome and loyal customers. As his apprentice, Franz is at Trsnjek’s side as he pays the price for this. The teen is forced to grow up fast and to decide where he, too, stands.
“The Tobacconist” packs a punch by telling a story of historical proportions through the narrow lens of one young man’s experience. This particular perspective — reflected artfully in the film’s strong styling and cinematography — attracted director and co-writer Nikolaus Leytner to the project.
“There are so many films on this period. I tried to show it from the point of view of this one boy,” the Vienna-based Leytner told The Times of Israel.
Leytner, 62, said he was incredibly fortunate to have famous Swiss actor Bruno Ganz play Freud. Ganz died from cancer in February 2019 at age 77. According to Leytner, “The Tobacconist,” originally released in Europe in 2018, was the last film Ganz shot.
“Bruno was my first choice for the role. I needed a very charismatic and intelligent actor to play such a strong personality as Freud,” Leytner said.
Austrian actor Simon Morzé, who puts in a strong performance as Franz, remembered being nervous on his first day of shooting with Ganz.
“The first scene we shot together was in an old, famous café in Vienna, and even though I had quit smoking a month before, I had to smoke a cigarette to calm my nerves,” Morzé said.
It was hard to get away from smoking and smoking culture on set. The emphasis in the script on smoking and its pleasures is true to the place and time of the story, which was decades before public health campaigns warning of the dangers of smoking. One short scene hints at Freud’s future death due to cancer of the jaw from his cigar habit.
“A tobacconist sells pleasure and desire. And sometimes also lust,” Trsnjek tells Franz in a line that sounds awkward to modern ears.
Morzé, 24, said it was hard in some ways to identify with country boy Franz. The actor grew up in Vienna, is politically aware, and learned a great deal about Nazism, World War II and the Holocaust in school. He was also introduced to Freud’s theories in a psychology course.
“On the other hand, I could connect with what it is like to fall in love for the first time — how nervous you can be, and how you can be a coward and brave at the same time,” Morzé said.
Morzé also identified with Franz’s desire for Freud to serve as a sort of father figure. Like the fictional character he plays, Morzé lived only with his mother (the actress Petra Morzé) while growing up.
The young actor said his mother had given him Seethaler’s novel to read well before he had any inkling he would be cast for the film version.
“I loved it. It was so well written that I could hear and smell the words,” Morzé said.
In preparation for his role, the actor read the book twice more and kept a diary as Franz in an attempt to get into the character’s head. Taking a cue from Freud’s instructions to Franz, Morzé also began writing down his dreams.
“I found the more you write your dreams down, the more of them you remember,” he noted. (When asked whether he had nightmares during the COVID-19 pandemic, he said that he didn’t. He attributed it to not being particularly scared of the virus.)
According to Leytner, there was an advantage to turning the novel into a film.
“We were able to include more scenes between Franz and Freud, which is a brilliant idea of an unusual friendship. We also added quite a few more of Franz’s dream scenes, which lend themselves to a visual medium,” he said
We never see Freud, who published the seminal “The Interpretation of Dreams” in 1899, help Franz understand his dreams. When toward the end of the film Franz tells the professor he is frustrated that he can’t make sense of what he has written down, Freud simply tells him, “We’re not in the world to find answers, but to ask questions.”
Viewers are deliberately left to their own devices to parse the dream scenes, and to identify the visual symbolic language threaded through the film.
Notably, although Freud avoids the stories that play out in Franz’s head at night, he does offer the boy advice on how to interpret the real world around him.
“Only with a great deal of courage or persistence or stupidity — preferably all three — do we manage here and there to make a mark,” Freud says.
Franz takes this to heart, for better or worse.
“The Tobacconist” is a “small” film with a considerable message. Morzé said he sees in it a warning for today’s political reality, in which freedoms are being eroded or threatened in many countries.
“It shows what fascism and radical parties can do. Things seem to move slowly, and then suddenly you find yourself in hell,” Morzé said.