The Tobacconist (Der Trafikant)


“Tell me about your dreams…”

(2018) Drama (MenemshaSimon Morzé, Bruno Ganz, Johannes Krisch, Emma Drogunova, Regina Fritsch, Karoline Eichhorn, Michael Fitz, Vicky Nikolaevskaja, Martin Oberhauser, Christoph Bittenhauer, Gerti Drassi, Rainer Woss, Thomas Mraz, Martin Thaler, David Altman, Tobias Ofenbauer, Erni Mangold, Tom Hanslmaier, Robert Seethaler, Angelika Strahser. Directed by Nikolaus Leytner

 

Figuring out who we are is one of the most difficult tasks that we undertake during our lifetimes. Many of us still haven’t got a clue even into our advanced years – and it’s well-nigh impossible for someone just starting out in life. Life is confusing even for the brightest and most experienced among us.

 

Franz (Morzé) is a bit of a dreamer. He lives in a bucolic Austrian village on the shores of Lake Attersee. It is 1937, and things in Europe are changing rapidly. Franz is 17 years old and lives with his mother (Fritsch). Franz has discovered girls, and spends much of his time swimming in the lake. He particularly likes to see how long he can stay submerged, but one day as he is enjoying the peace and quiet of the bottom of the lake, he sees flashes in the sky and realizes a thunderstorm is approaching. The one place you don’t want to be in a thunderstorm is in a lake, so he quickly emerges from the lake, high-tailing it for home and passing his mother on the way. She’s preoccupied with her lover giving her what-for against a tree; the lover finishes and decides to take a quick dip before the storm arrives. Not a good idea; a chance lightning strike in the lake punches his ticket for the express train to the afterlife.

Mama can no longer afford to feed her growing boy, so she sends him to Vienna to apprentice with another former lover of hers, Otto Trsnjek (Krisch) who lost a leg in the war and currently runs a tobacco store on a side street in the capital. At first, the two guys react to each other warily, but Otto is a kindly sort who is willing to sell his products to anyone – Jews, Communists, everyone – except Nazis, who come in looking for the party newspaper which Otto refuses to sell.

One of his customers is none other than the legendary father of modern psychiatry Sigmund Freud (Ganz) who comes to the shop to get his cigar fix. Franz is fascinated by what he does and determines to have Freud help him overcome his inability to find somebody to love. Freud, for his part, says ruefully that he is as confused about love as Franz is.

Things are going from bad to worse in the Austrian capital, but for Franz there is a saving grace; the beautiful young Bohemian Annezka (Drogunova) who works as a dancer in a cabaret and who seems to have lots of boyfriends. However, she and Franz hook up although when he gets serious, she backs away, leaving him bitter and confused. That’s the least of his worries, though, as the Nazis tighten their hold on Austria, people whose behaviors are disapproved of are whisked off of the streets, never to be seen again and prudent Austrians are finding someone with a swastika arm band to protect them – or make a hasty exit for less fraught environs.

Freud, as a Jew, is particularly vulnerable but he is not eager to leave his home. It falls upon Franz, who has become friends with the aging doctor, to try and convince him to leave before it’s too late. Franz is being forced to grow up quickly as he takes on more responsibility at the store and continues to pursue Annezka. Everyone seems to be doing what they can to get by.

Watching movies about the ascension of Nazi Germany are doubly disturbing in these days of rioting, pandemic and increasingly authoritarian posturing by the current administration. The parallels seem inescapable and it’s likely the filmmakers are fully aware of that. Some may find it extra-disturbing.

This was one of Ganz’ final films (it is the final Ganz film to be released in the United States) and his performance is heart-wrenching. He plays Freud as a gentle man with a self-deprecating sense of humor, not at all the way most of us picture him. Morzé is handsome enough in the lead role, but his performance is pretty bland for most of the film, and by the time the character shows signs of growth the damage is done. Krisch does a good job as the kindly Otto, and Russian actress Drogunova adds a dash of sensuality to the movie.

Freud’s psychological theories are on display throughout the film, as we are treated to Franz’ dreams which are full of symbols; submersion, spiders, isolation, mother bonding, and so on. Some of the dreams have rich imagery, but Leytner relies on them a bit too much. They interrupt the flow of the story and obfuscate what’s going on.

The movie is based on a novel by Richard Seethaler, which was a massive best-seller in Germany. There is a literary quality to the film which is a little more common in European films but which mass American audiences tend to shy away from. We are invited to psychoanalyze Franz, although to be honest as the movie starts he’s basically genitals with legs and with not a whole lot of responsibility or ability to see beyond his own immediate needs. That changes as the movie goes along, but the effect is at least at the beginning akin to the emperor not wearing any clothes.

The movie might have benefitted from less time spent on the dreams, although some of the dreams are actually kind of fascinating. Still, they do tend to get in the way of the best part of the movie – the story of Franz’ maturation process as he discovers that the things that were important to him as a boy matter less to him as a man. It’s a lesson that not all of us actually learn.

The movie is currently playing as a Virtual Theatrical Experience. Among the Florida theaters benefitting from this pandemic-centric VOD delivery are the Tampa Theater, the Tropic Cinema (Key West), All Saints Cinema (Tallahassee), Corazon Café (St. Augustine), Pensacola Cinema Art, and the Ft. Lauderdale International Film Festival. Click on the link below to buy your tickets to benefit those theaters or others closer to where you might live.

REASONS TO SEE: Ganz is magnificent as Freud. Some interesting dream imagery.
REASONS TO AVOID: The story meanders quite a bit.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is nudity, sex and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although the story is fictional and Franz isn’t real, the facts about Freud’s last days in Vienna are largely as shown.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Virtual Cinematic Experience
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/18/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 62% positive reviews; Metacritic: 55/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Book Thief
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Happy Death Day 2U

Heading Home: The Tale of Team Israel


They keep their heads covered to show their devotion to God.

(2018) Sports Documentary (Menemsha) Ike Davis, Sam Fuld, Ryan Lavarnway, Josh Zeid, Scott Buchan, Ty Kelly, Cody Baker, Jason Marquis, Jerry Weinstein, Cody Decker, Peter Kurz, Jon Moscot, Jeremy Bleich, Danny Valencia, Jonathan Mayo, Margo Sugarman. Directed by Seth Kramer, Daniel A. Miller and Jeremy Newberger

 

As underdogs go, there are few more under than the Israeli national baseball team. Even back in the 80s, the spoof Airplane! Joked about handing out a tiny pamphlet sized book called Great Jewish Athletes to passengers looking for a little light reading. Baseball has had a few great Jewish players including Hank Greenberg and most notably, legendary Dodgers pitcher Sandy Koufax. Sadly, while Koufax is fawned over in the film, Greenberg who was one of the great sluggers of the game back in the day gets nary a mention.

Most of the players for the Israeli team that was fielded for the 2017 World Baseball Classic – a kind of World Cup for baseball – were American Jews who have at least one Jewish parent or grandparent which qualifies them under the Heritage Rule which allows players of a different national descent to play for that team rather than the country they are actually citizens of.

For the most part Team Israel was made up of players who were career minor leaguers or had just a cup of coffee in the majors. One big exception was Ike Davis, a slugger for the New York Mets and later the Pirates, A’s and Yankees. Injuries had shortened his career, but he was hoping to make a comeback when he agreed to play with Team Israel.

The team was ranked 41st in the world and were derided by the press as “has-beens and never-will-bes” but that only served as motivation for the team who beat the heavily favored Great Britain team in Brooklyn to qualify for the 16-team tournament. Placed in Pool A, they would be playing in Seoul, South Korea.

Many of the players weren’t really practicing Jews and almost none of them had been to Israel. Billionaire Sheldon Adelson arranged to fly the team there in his own private jet, beginning a spiritual and personal journey for the team who began to appreciate their Jewishness more. A terrorist attack that occurred while they were touring the country further cemented their connection to their heritage.

Once the tournament starts, the team captures the imagination of the world, becoming the Cinderella story of the tournament. The film doesn’t really cover the individual games in more than a cursory fashion but then again, the movie isn’t about the games themselves.

One of the quirks the team was known for was their mascot, Mensch on the Bench. Sharp Shark Tank viewers may recognize it from an episode of that show, a light-hearted parody of Elf on a Shelf. Well, Team Israel had a life-sized version who accompanied the team to most media events and games. That was indicative of the light-hearted spirit that the team possessed as a whole.

The bonding of the team isn’t particularly unusual; most teams bond in some fashion and Team Israel was no exception. The 2017 team hoped to win the WBC but not for the reasons you might think. They wanted the future of Team Israel to be populated less by American players but with Israeli-born players. A disgruntled Cuban at a press conference excoriated the self-described “Jew Crew” because of this, but that doesn’t hold a whole lot of water – the Cuban team could certainly have recruited players of Cuban descent from other countries had they chosen to.

At the end of the day underdog movies are pretty much a lifeblood for sports documentaries and this one, while occasionally inspiring, really doesn’t add much to the picture except for one item – the awakening of the players to their Jewish heritage. Those scenes in which the players react to Jewish traditions and ceremonies are among the most compelling in the film. Clearly the players grow a connection to Israel and those are the moments that make the movie satisfying. Unfortunately, the standard sports clichés that litter the baseball sequences keep the movie achieving all-star status.

REASONS TO GO: This is a heartwarming and occasionally inspiring documentary.
REASONS TO STAY: The film loses some steam towards the end.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The three directors are childhood friends and met Mayo through a Jewish summer camp.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/9/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Do You Believe in Miracles? The Story of the 1980 U.S. Hockey Team
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Cecil

Aftermath (2012) (Poklosie)


You can't beat Ireneusz Czop's performance with a stick.

You can’t beat Ireneusz Czop’s performance with a stick.

(2012) Drama (Menemsha) Ireneusz Czop, Maciej Stuhr, Zbigniew Zamachowski, Danuta Szarflarska, Jerzy Radziwilowicz, Zuzana Fialova, Wojciech Brzezinski, Danuta Borsuk, Andrzej Mastalerz, Anita Podderbniak, Magdalena Gnatowska, Ryszard Roncziewski, Zbigniew Konopka, Elzbieta Romanowska, Lech Dyblik, Jaroslaw Gruda, Zbigniew Kasprzyk, Robert Rogalski, Maria Garbowska. Directed by Wladyslaw Pasikowski

We really don’t know what darkness lurks in the hearts of our neighbors. Even in the nicest, most bucolic towns there can be absolute horrors beyond imagining. Some people will go to the most extreme of measures to keep those secrets hidden.

Franck Kalina (Czop) has flown to Poland from Chicago. His destination is a pretty remote one; to get there he has to take a plane, a train, a bus and then walk the rest of the way. He is there to visit his brother Jozef (Stuhr) who runs the family farm.

Franck has been in America nearly 20 years and has been estranged from his brother at least for that long but when Jozef’s wife Jola shows up at his door with their kids and without explanation, he returns to the land of his birth to get to the bottom of things. There he finds Jozef has been essentially ostracized by the town. Why? Because he’s unearthing old Jewish tombstones that were repurposed by the Nazis during World War II as flagstones, pavement and other uses. He can’t really explain why he’s doing it other than it seems right; there’s nobody left to look after them.

Franck soon becomes embroiled in the controversy as the incidents escalate from rocks thrown through windows to anti-Semitic graffiti on their barn to physical violence directed against Jozef and his dog. Only the retiring village priest (Mastalerz) and a kindly medic (Fialova) seem to have any sympathy for them at all. Franck’s dogged determination to discover what the reason is for all the hatred over stones for people nobody can remember leads to a shocking discovery.

This movie took nearly a decade to secure the financing to make it to the screen. The movie is inspired by a real incident in the village of Jedwabne during the Second World War. The controversial non-fiction book Neighbors by Princeton scholar Jan Gross (which was denounced as anti-Polish and inflammatory) about the subject inspired the filmmakers to make Aftermath. Even now the events are a sore subject with the Polish people; even reviews of the film in American newspaper have inspired some passionate posts both pro and con; some look at the filmmakers as brave men who have become the first Poles to directly acknowledge the events in Jedwabne and in other places like it in the Arts. Others have condemned it as furthering vicious slander against the Polish people.

This is an incredibly moving film which is on one level the bond between two very different brothers. Franck is taciturn and confrontational but at the same time he didn’t have the decency to return home for the funeral for his parents. Jozef is stubborn and unforgiving but has a curious soft spot for the underdog. Both men, surprisingly, are what I’d call environmental anti-Semites. They habitually refer to Jews as “Yids” and often say things that convey their low opinion of Jews in general and Polish Jews in particular. Franck even intimates that the troubles Poles have getting decent jobs in the U.S.is due to Jewish interference.

They do make the unlikeliest of righteous men but yet they are. It works making them so un-heroic in many ways. These aren’t American action heroes who use their fists to get themselves out of sticky situations; they get beat up and they often seem to go out of their way to avoid conflict but who can blame them – at every turn they are attacked verbally and physically by the townspeople and the new rector (Radziwilowicz) arrived to replace the retiring priest for some odd reason is stirring the town up to do so.

Czop and Stuhr deliver raw, honest performances that depict the brothers as deeply divided and unsure how to bridge the gulf between them until this common cause unites them. They are dogged more than brilliant and stubborn more than compassionate. Perhaps the problem that some conservative Poles have with the film is that none of the Poles in the movie come off as good guys.

This isn’t a movie for the faint of heart. It tackles the issues of hatred, greed and suspicion in the real world and it does so in a real world way. While I saw this movie at the Central Florida Jewish Film Festival, there are no living Jews in the movie until the final scene – and yet the ghosts of the Jewish dead in the Holocaust hang heavy over the film itself. This is the kind of movie that will leave you speechless and is much worth seeking out if you can find it (the official website has a list of theaters playing the movie if you want to click on the picture above and find out if it’s playing near you). It is another contender in what is turning out to be a very strong year for independent films as one of the best of the year.

REASONS TO GO: Czop and Stuhr deliver powerful performances. Raw and emotional.

REASONS TO STAY: May be too intense for some.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some disturbing images and thematic content. There’s also a little bit of violence and some foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Received the Yad Vashem Chairman’s Award at the 2013 Jerusalem Film Festival for excellence in depiction of the Holocaust.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/19/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 76% positive reviews. Metacritic: 62/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Schindler’s List

FINAL RATING: 9.5/10

NEXT: The Attack