Finally, a movie that has the courage to ask: “Was it okay to be horny during the Holocaust?” While Nikolaus Leytner’s “The Tobacconist” poses several other provocative questions along the way, this stiff and milquetoast coming-of-age drama — the kind of thing that might have baited Manhattan’s bluehairs to arthouse theaters all summer long in a less disastrous year — fails to ask any of them with the same clarity, and probably would have fared much better had it stuck to the subject at hand rather than try and leverage it toward some kind of deeper meaning. Of course, certain traps are hard to avoid when you’re adapting a Robert Seethaler novel about an über-hormonal Austrian teenager who finds himself getting romantic advice from Sigmund Freud (played by the late Bruno Ganz in the last of the actor’s films to be released in America).
A country boy with Aryan features who grew up on the green shores of Austria’s bucolic lake Attersee, Franz (a strapping but somewhat blank Simon Morzé) is the kind of patient who the father of psychoanalysis must have dreamed about: The film’s opening scene finds the lad emerging from the ice-cold water outside his farmhouse, and running home past his mother as she gets shtupped against a tree. A crucifix stares down at him as he tries to warm up in bed, judging whatever untamed thoughts might be tossing about his head (Leytner and Klaus Richter’s script is mercifully too mundane to explore what those thoughts might be, and incestuous overtones are kept to the barest of minimums). Moments later, the man roleplaying as Franz’s new father-in-law is struck dead by a bolt of lightning, as if the kid needed another reason to be scared of sex.
With money running low, Franz’s mother sends her son to work for a former lover of hers in Vienna: A one-legged tobacconist named Otto Trsnjek (Johannes Krisch), who’s endearing in a fable-like way but never registers as false. The 1930s are coming to a terrible end, and the stink wafting into the capital is hard for young Franz to stomach (“these are rotten times,” an old crone informs us before any swastikas are given the chance), but the cigars that Otto sells in his store offer the boy a far more pleasant aroma.
Otto is a kind man in a poisoned city, and he provides a customers a safe space for customers of all kinds — including Jews — to enjoy porn instead of the Nazi propaganda that’s on sale everywhere else. One of those Jewish customers just happens to be a renowned psychologist nearing the end of his life, and Freud instantly diagnoses Franz as a more interesting knot of lust and repression than any of the old men whose libidos he’s forced to untangle at work every day. The two become friends faster than you can say “Finding Forrester” (or “Forrester – Gefunden!” as it’s known in German-speaking parts of the world), as the charming doctor concedes the unknowability of love while offering his young mentee pre-Maxim bon mots such as “Women are like cigars: If you pull at them too hard they won’t give you pleasure.” On second thought, maybe a tobacco shop is the last place you’d ever want to meet this guy.
Freud’s wisdom only grows all the more urgent when Franz swoons for the beautiful Anezka (Russian actress Emma Drogunova), a Bohemian foreigner who’s caught between the capriciousness of youth and the cold demands of survival in a way that no lovestruck teenage boy could resist trying to save her from. It isn’t long before the tightening grip of Nazism threatens to choke the life out of their innocent affair, the unsustainable bliss of which Leytner captures with a naked snowball fight that’s shot at the same classical remove as the rest of the film. Secret police begin to poke around Otto’s store at about the same time Anezka starts palling around with a German officer whose armband promises her a measure of protection. Franz — neither threatened by Hitler’s arrival, nor powerful enough to resist it any kind of immediately meaningful way — soon finds his hormonal tumult compounded by moral distress.
That might have been a more engaging tension in a movie that shared even a lick of its teenage protagonist’s unbridled lust and confusion, but “The Tobacconist” stubbornly opts for middlebrow sobriety over the more Louis Malle-like tempestuousness that might have brought its story to life. The result is a refined and unchallenging swirl of soft-serve Euro-porn that fails to reconcile the weight of its setting with the lightness of its story. Ganz is happily ahistorical as a sweet and passive Freud — it’s nice that the “Downfall” actor was given a gentle swan song after leaving us with cinema’s definitive Hitler — but the austere tone of Leytner’s direction leaves precious little room for him to have any fun with it. Freud’s relationship with Franz comes to feel like a strange outgrowth of a more somber movie about a lily-white kid watching his kind boss fall prey to fascism.
For a film that’s often pretty enough to pave over some of its less significant failings (Vienna has seldom looked more spectacular and tragic), Leytner goes out of his way to add in some blemishes. The film’s most irritating tic finds dear Franz getting lost in reveries about his acts of heroism, a device “The Tobacconist” returns to ad nauseam as its young protagonist realizes it may not be possible to follow his dick and his heart at the same time — to pine after Anezka while Otto rots in jail. Leytner further dilutes things with a series of more abstract dream sequences (the kind that someone might want to discuss with Freud), all of which are dull and gray and only manage to remind us that Franz isn’t deep enough to merit any further investigation into his mind. Even at the end of his days, it’s unfathomable that Freud would be so interested in this kid.
While “The Tobacconist” is always watchable, its inability to find meaning in a mess of uncooked symbolism prevents the movie from being worthy of Freud, and from doing justice to his parting words. “New worlds are created just by trying,” he tells Franz, reminding the impressionable young boy that it takes some courage to understand our thoughts, and even more not to run away from them. If only this film had the courage to have any real thoughts of its own.