THE TOBACCONIST – movie review

THE TOBACCONIST (Der trafikant)
Menemsha Films
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Nickolaus Leytner
Screenwriters: Klaus Richter, Nikolaus Leytner, based on Robert Seethaler’s novel
Cast: Simon Morzé, Bruno Ganz, Johannes Krisch, Emma Drogunova
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 6/29/20
Opens: July10, 2020

Tobacconist-US-Poster-sm.jpg

“Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” That is probably the best-known quote attributed to Dr. Sigmund Freud, meaning that you don’t have to look deeply into everything to understand; that a cigar is not always a symbol of what’s hiding inside every man’s pants. Now immerse yourself into the world of fiction. Think of a 17-year-old boy who confides to Freud that he simply does not understand love. “You don’t have to understand water. Just jump in,” replies the good doctor in Nickolaus Leytner’s period piece taking place in Vienna during the year 1938. Nickolaus Leytner, whose résumé is chock full of TV movies like “Die Stille danach” (how does a family live when its son has murdered five people and himself?), now directs “The Tobacconist,” from the Man Booker Prize-finalist novel of the same name by Robert Seethaler.

The movie is co-written by Klaus Richter, who wrote the screenplay about the rise and fall of actor Ferdinand Marian (who played the title character in the anti-Semitic “The Jew Suss”). “The Tobacconist” is both a coming of age story and a description of Vienna just before and during its occupation by Germany in 1938. While most Austrians after the war protested that they were victims of the occupation, the historical record (and this movie) indicates that many the German-speaking country welcomed the Nazi presence wholeheartedly.

In the film Franz Huchel (Simon Morzé), a 17-year-old boy, is forced by his promiscuous mother Margarete (Regina Fritsch) to leave their village after the middle-aged woman’s lover is electrocuted while swimming during a storm. (The opening scene is a gem.) Arriving there, he is employed by Otto Trsnjek (Johannes Krisch), the owner of a small tobacco shop and probably one of Margarete’s former lovers. Otto is an ardent anti-Nazi who has philosophic views about his main product. As he tells the easily impressed young apprentice, “A bad cigar is like horseshit… and a great cigar is the world.” (Given the state of the world today and in 1930s Europe, I would probably choose the bad cigar.) Otto welcomes Communists and Jews to the dismay of his neighbor the butcher, who, if he had the chance, would probably turn in both the vendor and Dr. Freud (Bruno Ganz in his last role) to the occupation.

The heart of the movie is the unlikely friendship of the young man with Dr. Freud. Though the father of psychoanalysis treats patients who can afford him, he freely gives advice to Franz, in love with an assertive Czech music hall dancer Anezka (Emma Drogunova). Freud’s family urges him to leave Vienna for London, believing rightly that his life would be in danger if he remained.

The personal story involves a young man who might have remained naïve had he stayed in the village of Attersee and how his boss, who lost a leg in World War I, coached him on tobacco and life. The personal alternates with the political as a drama of a city that appears proudly to hang large Nazi flags on a government building turned into a Gestapo headquarters. Among the treasures of the film is a series of Franz’s dreams, all surreal as dreams tend to be, and exquisitely photographed by cinematographer Hermann Dunzendorfer, filming in Germany, Austria and Italy. Aside from the filming, the highlight would have to be the strong performances by Johannes Krisch as the older tobacconist, a humanist who once rejected the business of a man who asked to buy a National Socialist newspaper; of the late Bruno Ganz, unrecognizable as the famous shrink who is both a fount of wisdom and fearful of his future under Nazism; and Simon Morzé as the young title figure, who learns to stand up to the Nazis like the neighboring butcher and to let go of a woman who would be anything but loyal to one mana.

In German with English subtitles.

117 minutes. © 2020 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B+
Acting – A-
Technical – A-
Overall – B+

A HIDDEN LIFE – movie review

A HIDDEN LIFE
Fox Searchlight Pictures
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Terrence Malick
Screenwriter: Terrence Malick
Cast: August Diehl, Valerie Pachner, Maria Simon, Tobias Moretti, Bruno, Ganz, Matthias Schoenaerts, Karin Neuhauser, Ulrich Matthes
Screened at: Park Ave., NYC, 10/9/19
Opens: December 13, 2019

A Hidden Life Movie Poster

In the novel “Middlemarch,” George Eliot praises those of us who do good without getting our fifteen minutes of fame: “…for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.” Among directors who take this expression to heart and project to their audience the lives of such people, you can scarcely find one more qualified than Terrence Malick. The master of meditative movies is back with his best offering in eight years, having wowed his (admittedly) relative small audience with “The Tree of Life,” the story of a family in Waco, Texas in 1956 wherein an adolescent boy is conflicted by his mother and father’s opposing ideas of upbringing.

With “A Hidden Life,” Malick takes us back to the 1940s, focusing his lenses on a family of six on a farm in St Radegun, Austria (filmed on location), a vista of compelling beauty framed by the Alps, complete with trees that rustle in the wind and brooks that flow without impedance. In a story based on real events, Franz Jägestätter (August Diehl) lives with his wife Franziska Jägerstätter, his mother-in-law, and his three young daughters. Franziska appears to have influenced him to the wonders of religion, a loving woman who cannot embrace her husband enough, who joins in the fun of mock chases with the little girls. He will later prove that he did not remain a hidden life, for his momentous decision to refuse to swear loyalty to Hitler who had annexed Austria threatens to cost him his life. A conscientious objector who nonetheless reports to an induction center where he refuses to raise his arm in a salute to Hitler, he suffers the hostility of all members of his farming community outside of his family. He would be punched spit upon, lectured by the town mayor, and altogether ostracized by these simply Austrian fellows who ecstatically welcomes the Anschluss, or annexation of their country to Germany.

Much of the three hour presentation is bound to tax the patience of some in the audience who might not be aware of the types of movies that Malick regularly makes. In this case, though the people in the story are all German speaking, ninety percent of the dialogue is in English, and not so much the dialogue of the people but instead that of their narrated thoughts. During the first segment of the movie, some in the audience will be wondering: When will something happen? Instead we see the daily, monotonous, grinding work of the people, threshing without the aid of modern equipment, cutting the wheat with scythes and harvesting with the aid of a donkey and a cow. The writer-director gives us a splendid picture of what farming was like some eighty years ago, later to contrast that with the brutality of the Nazis given almost complete authority over their Austrian prisoners.

You can’t say that when the Germans heard of this “traitor” who refuses to fight for the fatherland, they just hoisted him up on the gallows. Several military officers did their best to get him to sign a loyalty oath and take his chances on fighting. There was even some expectation that he would be exempted as were some farmers. Even in the end, when condemned to death, Judge Lueben (Bruno Ganz), one of the elderly judges on the military court, counseled that his protest would not mean a thing; that it would not stop the war or hinder the war effort in the slightest. Franz would probably agree. Though he probably lacked much education, his ethical choice was influenced not by consequentialism (make your ethical choice by the results that would ensue), but more by deontology (do the right thing even if by consequence it did not matter).

Since the church declared him a martyr and later beatified him, and since Malick made a film about him, the German judge was obviously wrong. It’s not clear from “A Hidden Life” what was in Franz’s background that made him the only farmer to refuse to serve the Führer, but by the conclusion of the three hours, we have a solid picture of the daily, natural life of small-town farmers contrasted with the brutality of the war effort. Diehl and Pachner anchor the film in their stirring roles, the latter showing how far a wife would go to stop her man from being a martyr, while Diehl demonstrates the absolute determination to resist.

This is a film that Malick fans will find irresistible.

180 minutes. © 2019 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B+
Acting – A-
Technical – B+
Overall – B+

THE GROUND BENEATH MY FEET – movie review

THE GROUND BENEATH MY FEET (Der boden unter den fuessen)
Strand Releasing
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Marie Kreutzer
Screenwriter: Marie Kreutzer
Cast: Valerie Pachner, Pia Hierzegger, Mavie Hoerbiger, Michelle Barthel, Marc Benjamin, Alex Sichrovsky
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 6/26/19
Opens: July 26, 2019 at New York’s IFC

Though much is made of a woman diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, Austrian-born writer- director Marie Kreutzer—whose debut feature “The Fatherless” deals as does her current film with the effect on a family of the appearance of their sister—covers considerable ground. “The Ground Beneath My Feet” can be looked upon as an anti-capitalist reach, centered on the relationship of a yuppie business consultant with her lunatic half-sister. Most of all it should compel you to consider people who are always dressed to kill, walking about as an iconic image of success, looking you right in the eye with their perfect complexions and well-trained bodies, with remarkable poise, restrained emotion, and perfect grooming, as likely as not to be harboring barely repressed memories and a conflicted wish to rid themselves of some of the responsibilities dragging them down.

Such is the case with Lola (Valerie Pachner), a slim woman who at the age of thirty is already on the way up in a consulting job that may remind you of George Clooney’s profession in “Up in the Air” as a hit-man of sorts helping companies to downsize their personnel in order to show more health in the bottom line. Kreutzer, though, is not as interested as Jason Reitman in comedy, but in a carefully paced drama that might make you realize that you’ve spent too much time in the office. It helps that the film is anchored by a remarkable performance from Valerie Pachner, who was previously seen in “Egon Schiele: Death and the Maiden,” about an artist who scandalized Viennese society in the early 20th century with provocative paintings.

Much is made of Lola’s status as a single woman, an orphan with nobody capable of looking after her, though she is the legal guardian of Conny (Pia Hierzegger), her forty-year-old half sister who spends most of the story hospitalized in a Vienna psychiatric institution, clinging to Lola, complaining that she is being kept against her will and is physically punished for not doing what the staff insists that she do.

Life is particularly complicated for Lola given that her work takes her from her native Vienna to the town of Rostock in North Germany, not exactly a backwater but as I recall a picture-perfect town on the Warnow River. Like other executives on the way up, she tries to keep her personal and private lives separate, inventing excuses when she is actually returning to Vienna to see her sister. That’s not all. She is having a lesbian relationship with Elise (Mavie Hoerbiger), her boss, who in one scene are graphically getting it on during a few erotic moments.

So far, whatever Lola wants, Lola gets, but she may have made a mistake in telling her lover about her schizoid sister, as Elise begins to wonder whether mental illness runs in Lola’s family. Climaxes arrive in both Lola’s professional life and her family bonds, as Elise must make a decision on promotions in her staff, and Lola must bear an even greater burden when her sister is released and set up in her own flat. However, in a small scene that would be comical if it did not strike home here in the U.S., a male executive in the firm that has contracted with Lola’s not only hits on her while having steak in an upscale restaurant but tells her flat-out that many males would put their hands under the table and into her thighs but that “I am not like that.” In another small scene that appears to show her political views, when a homeless woman asks for fifty cents and is ignored by Lola, she curses Lola, calls her a “rich woman” and worse, receiving a curt answer from Lola that the woman’s poverty is her own fault.

This is quite the film, mixing business with, well, some pleasure but mostly family heartache, editor Ulrike Kofler taking us back and forth, exposing what some of us in the audience undoubtedly face: how to spread our lives around from our professional duties to our family obligations without suffering at least one nervous breakdown in our lives. The ensemble do a splendid job, some serving like a Greek chorus to serve as background to Lola while a select few, particularly Pia Hierzegger as her loony sister and Mavie Hoerbiger as her immediate superior represent Lola’s family life and business tensions respectively.

In German with English subtitles.

108 minutes. © 2019 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B+
Acting – A-
Technical – A-
Overall – B+

THE WALDHEIM WALTZ – movie review

THE WALDHEIM WALTZ

Menemsha Films
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Ruth Beckermann
Screenwriter: Ruth Beckermann
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 9/24/18
Opens: October 19, 2018
Waldheims Walzer (2018)
Pete Seeger once sang a Tom Paxton song, a section going like this:

What did you learn in school today, dear little boy of mine,
What did you learn in school today, dear little boy of mine.
I learned our country must be strong, it’s always right and never wrong,
Our leaders are the finest men, and we elect them again and again,
And that’s what I learned in school today, that’s what I learned in school.

Don’t you think it’s true that in America all our leaders are the finest men?  Grade school optimism of this nature would not fare well in other countries, as their presidents and prime ministers are not as saintly as ours.  Take the bottom-feeder that came out of Austria.  No, not that one.  Think of Kurt Waldheim, Wouldn’t it have been great if that war criminal, that Viennese vulture, spent his life baking sachertortes instead of taking part in Nazi paramilitary activities?  Instead the one-time president of Austria repeatedly states throughout this documentary that he was just a soldier drafted by Germany to serve on the Russian front.  What he conceals while at the same time virtually shooting himself in the foot by his denials, that he knew nothing about the shooting of Serb civilians one hundred meters from his office in Yugoslavia nor did he have any knowledge of the deportation of 12,000 Jews from Salonika, Greece during the years of World War II particularly 1942-43.

Maybe he lied, maybe he didn’t. But there is enough doubt sowed here to have caused the Austrian voters to demur about casting ballots for him when he ran for president in 1986.  He won on the second ballot with 53.8% of the vote.

Filmmaker Ruth Beckermann, who has considerable experience with documentaries, is adept at dramas as well.  Before “The Waldheim Waltz” she traveled across Europe and the Mediterranean to unfold “The Dreamed Ones,” focused on chance encounters with the likes of Nigerian asylum seekers in Sicily, an Arab musician in Galilee, nationalists drunk on beer in Vienna, and veiled young women trying to cross a busy road in Alexandria.  She provides voiceover narration throughout “The Waldheim Waltz,” which concentrates on the 1986 presidential election, showing archival film from the forties and from Waldheim’s tenure as UN Secretary General.  One must wonder at the kind of world that existed in 1972 to allow this fellow, later banned from travel in the U.S. for lying about his service in the S.A., or Sturmabterlung, the Nazi paramilitary force.

The most dramatic incident occurs when, during a street confrontation between pro-Waldheim people on the street and those opposed, a member of the former group yells to Beckermann and to all around gathered to watch the action, “You belong in the ground, you Jewish swine.” Then to another in the crowd, “Are you a Jewboy?  A Jewboy?”  This antisemitism is nothing new for Austrians.  To this day, they consider themselves citizens who suffered just like the Jews under the Nazis since the Anschluss, or annexation of their country to Germany.  The reality is that crowds turned out to cheer wildly for Hitler and generally to show that the majority, perhaps, were quite comfortable attaching themselves to another German-speaking country.

We can’t fail to add that Waldheim’s “memory loss” or “amnesia” about his wartime activities brings to mind similar situations that have arisen here in the U.S. as politicians, grilled by journalists and congressional committees to ‘fess up about shady dealings in their past, have “no recollection.”  This is not to say that any office holder or candidate for high-level jobs is on the same base level as was a member of a Nazi paramilitary organization.  This is just the way that we, watching local politics about the Kavanaugh hearings in particular, can have an AHA! moment.  This is what dirty politics is all about.  It’s no wonder that so many of our citizens have given up on participating even once every two years in the simple act of casting ballots, given that neither Tweedledum nor Tweedledee will be able to solve or even to bother understanding the real problems that all but the richest one percent face.

94 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B
Acting – B
Technical – B
Overall – B