Review by Sean Boelman
There are plenty of historical fiction films set during WWII that mix a dramatic story with real-life characters. Unfortunately for Nikolaus Leytner’s The Tobacconist, this script features too little of its inspiration and a bit too much of his theories, resulting in a movie that is passable but leaves something to be consciously desired.
The film follows a young man who is sent to be an apprentice in a cigar shop in Nazi-occupied Vienna, where he meets and befriends the father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud. Despite the tremendous potential that this premise holds, the movie too often falls back on tropes of the wise old man instilling his knowledge to the youth, not taking advantage of the intriguing presence of Freud.
That isn’t to say that the film doesn’t explore Fruedian psychology — in fact, it does so almost a bit too aggressively. The movie grinds to a screeching halt multiple times to allow the protagonist to have a dream sequence. Although Freud’s theories heavily involve the subconscious, the repetitive and overlong nature of these scenes simply won’t be interesting to the audience.
The better moments in the film are those which allow the protagonist and Freud to converse freely. The dialogue in these portions is excellent, which makes it all the more frustrating that the movie didn’t feature more of this insightful commentary. Instead, audiences get a mostly generic wartime romance.
Arguably the most disappointing thing about the film is that it lacks any real political bite. Although viewers will probably be used to toothless WWII dramas by now, this one feels particularly shallow. For a movie that apparently wants to be frank in its depictions of sexuality and violence, it pulls far too many punches in regards to what could actually be meaningful.
That said, the excellent ensemble is able to keep the movie alive. Bruno Ganz gives a phenomenal performance as Freud. It is exactly the type of big and flashy turn that a historical drama like this demands. Simon Morzé also shows a lot of potential here, but suffers in comparison to the much more commanding Ganz.
Additionally, Leytner does a very good job of periodizing the film. His visual style isn’t anything too excessively creative, but there are plenty of pretty shots and the movie as a whole is very competent. It consistently feels like significant effort was put into making the atmosphere feel as believable as possible.
The Tobacconist isn’t particularly obtrusive in any way, but that is also its primary shortcoming. There was so much potential for a World War II movie about Sigmund Freud to be interesting, but this just felt average.
The Tobacconist is now streaming in partnership with indie theaters. A list of participating locations can be found here.