It is 1937 shortly before Austria joined Hitler’s Third Reich. Franz (Simon Morzé) is 17 and lives alone in a small Austrian village with his mother Margarete (Regina Fritsch). She has ambitions for her son and sends him to Vienna to live and work with Otto (Johannes Krisch) who runs a small tobacco store. Otto is grateful for help, as he is handicapped, having lost a foot in World War I. He sells not only tobacco, but also publications and under-the-counter pornography. Otto sleeps in the back of the store and quickly learns the trade, including selling one cigarette at a time, which one fancy society lady buys regularly. We soon feel political differences creeping into society: Otto serves everyone, including Jews, something his neighbor, Rosshuber, refuses to do in his butcher shop next door. While the world around him is building up to major military upheavals, Franz’s thought are all about love. He soon gets advice from an aging Professor Sigmund Freud (Bruno Ganz), who is also a customer. Freud says, “You don’t have to understand water when you jump in, and it’s the same for love.” Franz falls in love with Anezka (Emma Drogunova). She is more experienced, older and works as a stripper/dancer in a night club. She flirts with Franz, while going out with other men.
This is a coming-of-age film with a National Socialist background in a radically changing Austria. We see Franz maturing and taking responsibility for Otto, for his mother, even a bit for Freud himself, who is faced with leaving the country for England. It reminded me of the recent Mackie Messer film, which takes place just a few years earlier, in a Germany also on the verge of war – similar costumes and street scenes. Water seems to be a symbol, and often appears as dreams, with frequent references to hiding in a water tank, swimming, drowning, being naked in water, etc. Based on the book by Robert Seethaler, The Tobacconist played at the 2018 Filmfest Hamburg. (Becky T.)