The Tobacconist
Review by Willard Manus

This is one Austrian film that isn’t afraid to show how the country opened its arms to embrace Naziism in 1938.

THE TOBACCONIST, directed by Nikolaus Leytner, focuses on a tobacco shop in Vienna which is targeted by the Nazis when they take control of the city. Otto (Johannes Krisch), the owner of the shop, is a well-known anti-Fascist, an urbane, warm-hearted gent who isn’t afraid to raise his voice when the Nazis begin to harass the Jewish shop-owners on his street.

Otto has also hired an assistant, a 17-year-old country boy named Franz (Simon Morze). Franz may be uneducated but he is also sensitive and intelligent, qualities that attract the attention of the shop’s most illustrious customer, Sigmund Freud (Bruno Ganz).

Freud is at first amused by Franz’s naive questions about love and sex, but when he gets to know the lad better and learns about his strange, surrealistic dreams, he is intrigued enough to befriend him.

Then Franz meets (at a carnival) a sexy, free-spirited gal named Anezka (Emma Progunova). She is a Czech immigrant, living in Vienna without papers, getting by on her wits. She’s attracted to Franz and eventually goes to bed with him, but makes it clear he will never possess her. She is too cunning and ambitious to become the girlfriend of an impoverished clerk. She also knows that her beauty and sexuality will always attract the attention of rich and powerful men. She couldn’t care less if some of them happen to wear Nazi uniforms.

THE TOBACCONIST skillfully explores the relationship between the personal and political in pre-war Austria. Against the backdrop of the Nazi takeover of the country and the imposition of racial laws–-Jews were forbidden to hold important jobs, shop at the same time as Gentiles, publish books or newspapers, etc.–-Franz begins to grow to manhood before our eyes, thanks mostly to Freud’s influence. The famed psychiatrist not only mentors Franz but helps him to cope with the agony of having been dumped by his first-love, Anezka. Their father/son relationship is well-dramatized and gives the film much of its emotional power and resonance.

Equally compelling is the way Leytner exposes the shameful complicity of his countrymen in the Nazi putsch. The Viennese were all too willing to attack the Jews, smash and torch their shops, insult and assault them, steal their possessions and property. Nor did they complain or shed a tear when the Jews were rounded up and shipped to death camps.

THE TOBACCONIST might not be the best film ever to come out of Austria, but it can’t be faulted for its courage and honesty.