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+

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+