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The Tobacconist at the Asheville Jewish Film Festival

The Tobacconist at the Asheville Jewish Film Festival

A movie that merges impossible dreams with a historical nightmare, The Tobacconist features one of the final performances of legendary German actor Bruno Ganz, who died last month. (His portrayal of Hitler in the 2004 film Downfall has spawned countless internet memes.)

Ganz plays the 81-year-old Prof. Sigmund Freud in this year’s opening night feature for the Asheville Jewish Film Festival, beginning Thursday, March 21, at the Fine Arts Theatre.

Freud becomes a reluctant mentor to the movie’s main character, the fictional Franz (Simon Morzé) a 17-year-old from the Austrian countryside whose mother sends him to Vienna when their circumstances turn dire. He becomes apprentice to tobacco shop owner Otto Trsnjek (Johannes Krisch), who sells cigars to Freud.

Based on a 2012 novel by Robert Seethaler (published in English in 2016), The Tobacconist confronts the self-centered Franz with the reality of the Nazi annexation and brutal occupation of Austria. The movie traces the gradual shedding of his youthful fantasies as history closes in around him.

Ganz is grumbly goodness as Freud, dramatizing the well-known story of the psychoanalyst’s reluctance to leave his Viennese home and his deteriorating practice and living conditions. Without fully understanding Freud’s significance, Franz becomes fixated on the professor, believing the man can unlock the secrets of the dreams that have long obsessed him.

It’s probably not too much of a stretch to assume that Franz is a stand-in for his country, where many initially supported the Anschluss, harboring the fantasy of a peaceful and powerful Greater Germany, only to see that dream quickly crushed by the Nazis.

Emma Drogunova and Simon Morzé in  The Tobacconist.

Emma Drogunova and Simon Morzé in The Tobacconist.

The opposing poles of Franz’s life are his boss, Otto, a principled man who lost a leg during the Great War, and Anezka (Emma Drogunova), an amoral young Czech émigré scraping by as a stripper and escort. The trope of a boy blindly infatuated with his first sexual conquest, despite ample evidence of her unworthiness, is the story’s weakest aspect, but as a historical metaphor — Eastern Europe proving too weak to resist the Germans — it works.

Morzé gives an earnest performance as Franz, and both Ganz and Krisch are standouts as the role models to whom the boy only gradually pays real attention. Most remarkably, the movie conveys the horrors of what’s happening without the need for explicit violence beyond fisticuffs and broken windows. It’s a low-key but thought-provoking film that builds in intensity to a somber finish.

All in all, The Tobacconist is a fine opener to this year’s Asheville Jewish Film Festival, which runs on four consecutive Thursday nights at the Fine Arts, with encore showings of each film at 1 p.m. Fridays. Upcoming features are The Samuel Project (March 28-29), with Hal Linden as the grandfather of a high school senior working on an animation project; the Spanish-language Leona (April 4-5), about forbidden love in Mexico City; and Chewdaism: A Taste of Jewish Montreal (April 11-12), which uncovers the city’s Jewish history through its food. All screenings are $10, except for closing night ($25). Learn more online at ajff.fineartstheatre.com.

Grade: B. Not rated but suited for ages 13 and older. Playing March 21-22 at the Fine Arts Theatre.

(Photos: Tobis Film)

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