Movie Review: The Tobacconist (Der Trafikant)

Yesterday I received a call from a local distributor telling me that a woman who attended their press screening of MY SPY thirteen days ago has tested positive for Covid-19. I asked her where the woman was sitting and it turns out she was two rows in front of me with no one in between us. (I took a photo of my ticket so I knew where I was sitting.) We don’t know if this woman was infectious at the time of the screening and I feel fine but, just to be safe, I’m going to limit my contact with others – not that I’m running around town anyway – for a couple more days. It’s interesting that during my taped review of that film, which is available for viewing on my Facebook page, I mentioned that the cinema took my temperature (as they all do here now) and it showed 34.1 degrees. My normal temperature is 35.6 and I commented that their gun clearly needs to be recalibrated. How right was I! If that woman was running a slight fever that night, their gun wouldn’t have indicated it.

Anyhow, back to movies, the cancellation of new releases continues. The latest casualty comes from Paramount Pictures. Their romantic comedy, THE LOVEBIRDS, starring Kumail Nanjiani and Issa Rae, has been sold to Netflix. The film was supposed to premiere last week at SXSW but that plan went out the window when the festival got cancelled. The film is expected to hit North America’s TV and computer screens on April 3, which was its original commercial release date, but that date has yet to be confirmed by Netflix. As for when we’ll be able to see it here in Hong Kong (legally, of course), stay tuned.

With so many people hunkering down at home, I thought I’d turn my focus to films that are available on the streaming services. The other day I watched an Austrian coming-of-age film called THE TOBACCONIST. The film premiered at the Hamburg Film Festival in September 2018 and has had a very limited run around the world, playing mostly at Jewish film festivals. While the story involves a friendship between the central character and Sigmund Freud, I wouldn’t say that this is a Jewish film. It is an interesting story though.

Seventeen-year-old Franz Huchel (Simon Morzé, Austrian TV’s FAST FORWARD) lives a quiet existence with his mother on the Attersee. After their benefactor dies unexpectedly, Franz’s mother sends the boy to Vienna to apprentice at a tobacco shop owned by Otto Trsnjek (Johannes Krisch, IN THE FADE; A HIDDEN LIFE), who was probably another of the woman’s benefactors at some point. There, Franz meets Sigmund Freud (Bruno Ganz, perhaps best known for all the memes of his portrayal of Hitler in the movie DOWNFALL) who is a regular customer of the shop, and the two men strike up a unique friendship. When Franz falls in love with Anezka (Emma Drogunova), a Bohemian immigrant he meets at a local fair, he seeks the advice of the noted psychoanalyst. Meanwhile, the winds of change are blowing swiftly across Austria. Almost overnight, Nazis are everywhere and Franz, Otto, Freud, Anezka and even Franz’s mother all have to make hard choices if they are going to survive.

THE TOBACCONIST is based on the 2016 book of the same name by Robert Seethaler. The book was a huge success in its original German language and has since been translated into English. Director Nikolaus Leytner, whose body of work so far has mostly been in TV movies in his native Austria, has said in interviews that he remained fairly faithful to the book here (I’ll have to get back to you on that one. I bought a digital copy yesterday but I haven’t started to read it yet.), though he did put some curious visuals to Franz’s dreams. Some of them are quite obvious in their interpretation while others are complete head-scratchers. Unfortunately, Franz and Freud don’t discuss the dreams so we never get to hear what Herr Professor thinks they mean but he does dole out some sage advice about women and love to the young man.

With solid performances all around and Leytner adeptly recreating the apprehension of the time without resorting to the usual Nazi tropes that we see in so many Hollywood films, THE TOBACCONIST is definitely a film you should check out. It’s available now on Netflix.

Watch the review recorded on Facebook Live on Friday, March 27th, 8:30 am HK time!

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