Bruno Ganz famously played Hitler in Downfall. Now, in one of his final roles in Nicolaus Leytner’s The Tobacconist, he steps into the role of Sigmund Freud, a man who might have been one of the Fuhrer’s victims had he not been to flee to England. Ganz’s delightful performance portraying the warm, soft side of the father of psychoanalysis is a ray of light in this otherwise dark drama set in pre-war Vienna.
Freud is not the protagonist of the tale, an adaptation of Robert Seethaler’s novel. That would be Franz Huchel (Simon Morzé), a young man sent by his mother from the rural hinterlands to Vienna to apprentice with tobacconist Otto Trsnjek (Johannes Krisch). The big city proves eye-opening for Franz, who quickly becomes besotted with flirty, gap-toothed Bohemian immigrant Agnezka (Emma Drogunova), a spiritual sister to Cabaret‘s Sally Bowles. At the shop, Freud is among the regular customers, and the two form an unexpected bond, the older man compassionate toward Franz’s romantic travails and providing an ear for the youth to talk about his vivid dreams.
Set in another era, The Tobacconist might have been a sunny coming-of-age tale of first love and offbeat friendship. But this is Vienna during the rise of the Nazis. From Otto, a World War I vet who gave up a leg for the Fatherland and will not bow to the Nazis, Franz learns as much about politics as he does about the care of Havana cigars. From Agnezka he learns about the vagaries of love. From Freud, he learns that he is not in the world to find answers, but to ask questions. From Freud and Otto both, he learns just how far he is willing to go for a friend, a lesson that takes on new urgency under the pall of Nazi occupation.
Leytner’s imaginative staging of Franz’s dreams – Franz confronting an iceberg in one, an apparently nude and recumbent Freud drifting a rowboat in another – and the flights of his imagination add a layer of surrealism to the drama. Even the most benign exchange with a Nazi amps up the tension, lending The Tobacconist the aura of a thriller. It has elements of romance in Franz’s awkward courtship of Agnezka. Then there is the friendship between Franz and Freud, an initially unlikely relationship the blossoms into a special connection for both men. The scenes between Ganz as the wise doctor and the naïve youth inject the film with welcome warmth.
The Tobacconist is not the last film that Ganz made before his 2019 death, but it is apparently the final one to screen in the US. The actor’s performance is one of immense charm. His Freud represents a lovely final bow, as the curtain comes down on an acting giant’s 60-year career. –Pam Grady
The Tobacconist opens July 10 at the Balboa Theatre/Cinema SF and other virtual screening rooms.