Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Highly recommended: Nikolaus Leytner's dark, faux-feel-good THE TOBACCONIST, a tale of the rise of the Nazis in pre-WWII Vienna

Searching for something dark and different? Look no farther than THE TOBACCONIST, the movie co-written (with Klaus Richter) and directed by Nikolaus Leytner, adapted from the popular novel by German actor Robert Seethaler.

From the outset in the gorgeous Austrian countryside -- as our 17-year-old hero stays underwater far too long while his mother has noisy, outdoor sex with the fellow who's semi-keeping her, after which her lover is electrocuted as he goes for a swim during a lightning storm -- the movie takes on the look, tone and feel of a fairy-tale fable gone somehow quite awry.     

Herr Leytner (shown at right) and his co-workers succeed in holding that tone, look and feel for the entire movie, even as the story told begins to look more and more like a lovely coming-of-age rom-com. Don't hold your breath, as the place (Vienna) and time period (the rise of Adolf Hitler and his Nazi party) preclude just about anything resting in the realm of the positive.

When our hero, played with a winning combination of naivete, rampant sexuality, and burgeoning idealism by Simon Morzé (below, right), meets the girl of his dreams Emma Drogunova, below, left), she turns out to be a Bohemian lass who has been, not merely around the block a few times, but very possibly around the entire city.

Likewise, when mom -- now deprived of her major source of income, must ship her son off to the big city to meet and work for the father (who, till now, he's never seen nor even known existed), this man -- who lost a leg during service in WWII and now owns a successful tobacco shop frequented by some wealthy clients -- turns out to be a veritable role model. "Dad" is played very well indeed by Johannes Krisch, below.

Performance-wise, however, the movie's ace-in-the-hole is that fine Swiss actor Bruno Ganz (below, right), who died earlier this year, after giving one after another memorable performances (from The Marquise of O and The Wild Duck to Wings of Desire and In the White City). Here, in one of his final roles, Ganz plays, yes, Sigmund Freud, who happens to be a client of the tobacco shop, takes a liking to our young hero, and helps him out with everything from his dreams (they are weird and many) to his love life.

Novelist Seethaler's choice to set his coming-of-age tale against a time and society fraught with such ominous, overriding negativity gives his narrative a kind of constant tension, as well as darkness not usually found in the genre. Hope fights with despair, light battles shadow, ideals butt brutal reality. Given the time and place, we should not be too surprised at the outcome.

And yet all this is handled with enough subtlety and even some surprise that we are swept up and away all over again. And if the darkness wins out, it does so in the hands of filmmakers and a cast that weave their own dark, sad and quite special spell.

From Menemsha Films and running 108 minutes, The Tobacconist makes its North American theatrical debut in Toronto this Friday, December 20, at the Mount Pleasant theater. Elsewhere? Sure hope so, but U.S. cities and theaters have not been announced as yet. Stay tuned and click here for periodic updates.

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