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by Nikolaus Leytner

grade: 6

The Tobacconist is undoubtedly an interesting feature film, but it gets lost in the many paths it decides to take. And not even the presence of Bruno Ganz or a cameo by the great Erni Mangold can do much.

When the world was about to change

The Tobacconist, based on the novel of the same name by Robert Seethaler and directed by Nikolaus Leytner in 2018, is one of the last films in which the great Bruno Ganz took part. For the occasion, in fact, the legendary actor from Zurich played Sigmund Freud himself, here in one of the most dramatic periods of his life. A particularly challenging operation, this one, since the feature film (and Seethaler’s book before it), in parallel with the vicissitudes of Freud, focuses in particular on the story of a young man who has yet to find his place in the world with one of the most dramatic wars just around the corner. Will the director have been able to deal with such a complex task? Let us go step by step.

The story staged, then, is that of 17-year-old Franz (played by Simon Morzé), who, following the death of his stepfather, must leave his hometown to go to Vienna and start working for a tobacconist (Johannes Krisch), a friend of his family, who has just come back from World War I and who has lost a leg. In the Austrian capital, Franz will meet Freud and a beautiful friendship will develop between the two. Hitler’s rise to power and increasingly strict racial laws, however, will inevitably change things forever.

In the course of his long and prolific career, Leytner has been involved in all kinds of film genres, both in terms of TV films and feature films conceived exclusively for theatrical release. While we were able to appreciate the surreal and naive tones of the delightful Drei Herren (made in 1998), we were not entirely convinced by Half a Life (2008), in which, alongside the drama of a man with important sins to atone for, certain directorial virtuosities aimed at giving the whole a more dreamlike and spiritual character often turned out to be inappropriate and excessively artificial. In The Tobacconist, as we can imagine, such virtuosities have been maintained and, in this case, relate precisely to the dreams made by the young protagonist and subsequently written down and interpreted by Sigmund Freud himself.

We agree: the presence of a personality like Freud undoubtedly has a strong influence on the whole story. The oneiric, consequently, must necessarily be brought into play. Yet, in this The Tobacconist, from a purely directorial point of view, everything seems excessively contrived and clumsy and, on the whole, it almost reminds us of a TV film (and here Leytner’s experience in television is more evident than ever).

The same applies to the many potentialities that such a story has. Young Franz’s love torments, his inexperience with women and Freud’s precious advice never seem to find the necessary depth from a purely narrative point of view. Everything seems to “disappear”, in fact, the moment History sadly takes over. And while this choice manages to find its own, successful climax, it also seems to want to leave (deliberately?) too many elements unresolved. What a pity! Because, in fact, this The Tobacconist is, in spite of everything, undoubtedly an interesting feature film, but it gets lost in the many paths it has decided to take. And not even the presence of Bruno Ganz or a cameo by the great Erni Mangold can do much.

Original title: Der Trafikant
Directed by: Nikolaus Leytner
Country/year: Austria, Germany / 2018
Running time: 117’
Genre: drama, historical
Cast: Simon Morzé, Bruno Ganz, Johannes Krisch, Emma Drogunova, Regina Fritsch, Elfriede Irrall, Michael Fitz, Rainer Wöss, Sabine Herget, Gerti Drassl, Gerhard Liebmann, Hermann Scheidleder, Robert Seethaler, Alexander E. Fennon, Jasmin Barbara Mairhofer, Erni Mangold, Carl Achleitner, Fritz Egger, Gottfried Breitfuss, Angelika Strahser, Martin Thaler, Rainer Doppler, Barbara Spitz, Haymon Maria Buttinger, Thomas Mraz, Vicky Nikolaevskaja, Martin Oberhauser, Tom Hanslmaier, Karoline Eichhorn
Screenplay: Klaus Richter, Nikolaus Leytner, Robert Seethaler
Cinematography: Hermann Dunzendorfer
Produced by: Epo-Film, Glory Film, TOBIS Film

Info: the page of The Tobacconist on iMDb; the page of The Tobacconist on the website of the Austrian Film Commission