“We’re not in this world to find answers, but to ask qestions.”
Nikolaus Leytner’s The Tobacconist is a tale of looking for love, finding wisdom, and becoming an adult. As with many coming-of-age films there is movement from innocence to facing harsh realities. How one faces such realities has major consequences.
The film opens with 17 year-old Franz (Simon Monzé) sitting on the bottom of a lake. When he sees lightning flashing, he surfaces and runs home through the forest, past his mother and her lover having sex against a tree. Franz climbs into bed to hide. His mother’s lover decides to take a dip in the lake and is struck by lightning and dies. (A bit Oedipal?) His mother sends Franz off to Vienna to apprentice with Otto (Johannes Krisch), her former lover who runs a tobacco shop.
Otto, who lost a leg in World War I, is cynical, especially now that the Nazis have occupied Austria. Otto’s shop is welcoming to all, even Jews and Communists. (Although Otto is somewhat cold to a Nazi customer.) Otto begins to teach Franz about business, and dealing with people. The first lesson is that the shop is more than a place of business, it is a “temple of pleasure and spirit”. He also begins to help the naïve Franz see what is happening in the world around him.
One of the customers in the shop is Sigmund Freud (Bruno Ganz). When Franz asks the renown psychologist about love and women, Freud admits to being as confused about that as Franz. But he tells Franz you don’t have to understand water before you jump in to a lake. So Franz heads off to meet a girl and chooses Anezka (Emma Drougunova), a beautiful Bohemian who is a bit older and experienced. When she abandons him after a fun evening, he tracks her down to discover she lives in squalor and is a fan dancer. He tries to kindle a relationship, but it never quite takes off.
Meanwhile, the Nazi are beginning to crack down. Everyone is faced with choices to make for how they will survive. Otto is arrested. Freud’s family wants him to emigrate to London. Franz wants to have Anezka run away with him to some place peaceful. Suddenly Franz must take on maturity. But what will that mean? And what will it cost him?
An interesting part of this film, in light of Sigmund Freud being one of the key characters, is possible psychological images: begin underwater, dead animals, a spider that lives in the tobacco shop, and Franz’s many dreams, which Freud encourages him to write down. It might make for an interesting project to watch the film with Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams at hand. But in this film Freud never psychoanalyses Franz or his problems. Rather he serves, along with Otto, as a mentor to a young man who must grow up quickly.
The film tracks Franz’s growing maturity in a variety or ways. One subtle way is through clothing. For the first part of the film, Franz is always wearing short pants or knickers. After Otto’s arrest, when he must now run the shop himself, he begins to wear trousers. But the real coming-of-age moment is when Franz has taken Freud a gift of Havana cigars, Freud shares one with Franz who has not smoked prior to this. In that scene, Freud recognizes Franz as an adult, and perhaps Franz recognizes that for the first time.
As Franz makes his journey from naïveté to maturity, he grows through the wisdom imparted by his two mentors: Otto and Freud. Wisdom is something valued in scripture. But it is never seen as an easy path. In Proverbs, we are reminded that many follow after the siren call of Folly. In Ecclesiastes, the biblical cynic philosopher calls his search for wisdom “an unhappy business that God has given to human beings to be busy with.” In his time in Otto’s “temple of pleasure and spirit” Franz learns many new things. Through the words and actions of his two mentors, Franz begins to see that he must put away the childish part of his life. The world needs him to be involved and to act properly and courageously.
The Tobacconist is available on Virtual Cinema through local art houses.
Photos courtesy of Menemsha Films