Film reviews this month

Pelham Sportaculars, Fairfax, Virginia, National Capital Senior Softball Classic, runner-up, Womens’ Division, representing Canada PHOTOS BY LOIS SIEGEL

Baseball Girls

Directed by Lois Siegel (Canada, 1995)

Review by 
Lois Siegel

From seven-year-olds playing baseball and learning the rules of the game to 60-year-olds playing slo-pitch softball, my film Baseball Girls explores the private and professional lives of women obsessed with the sport they love. Using animation, archival stills and live-action footage, what I hoped to be a zany and affectionate feature documentary details the history of women’s participation in the largely male-dominated world of baseball and softball.

As a child growing up in the U.S., I played pickup games in an empty lot. When I was 12, I taught a boy how to throw a curve ball. I was his team scorekeeper during Little League games. His coach asked me if I would like to play on his team – my answer was “Yes.” The coach asked Little League if I could. The answer was “No.” I might get hurt, they said. If they had said yes, I would have made history as the first girl playing Little League.

At Ohio University, I made films. My first was Spectrum In White, composed of graphics scratched directly on the film surface. It was shown at the First International Festival of Women’s Films, New York City, 1972, and I was hooked.

Years later in Montreal, I started working at the National Film Board of Canada and completed several films.

In 1990, my film Stunt People, about a family who performed stunts for films, won a Genie Award for Best Short Documentary. Everything suddenly changed. I was the first filmmaker to win this award through “Aid to Private Sector” at the film board.

I joined a women’s softball team and decided to make a film about women’s baseball. Dennis Murphy, executive director of the documentary studio at the film board, liked the idea, and Baseball Girls was born. Dennis teamed me with Silva Basmajian, a terrific film producer from Toronto. Basmajian suggested that I include historical footage to chronicle women and baseball. A brilliant idea.

Baseball Girls premiered at the Montreal World Film Festival in 1995. It won the Targa Citta’ Di Palermo award in 1996 at the International SportsFilm Festival in Palermo, Italy “for the novelty of the point of view through which the history of the female role in American baseball has been reconstructed.”

Baseball Girls was screened at the athletes’ village during the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia and on the Women’s Television Network (W), PBS, the Documentary Channel and Knowledge Network. Oxygen, the U.S. women’s network partly owned by Oprah Winfrey, purchased Baseball Girls, and it aired from 2000 to 2002.

Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes

Available free for viewing at the National Film Board of Canada website:
nfb.ca/film/baseball_girls

The National Film Board of Canada crew. Front row, from left: Hans Oomes, Barry Perles, Lois Siegel, Alyna Herscovici, Rene Daigle. Back row: Howie Bokser, Dawn Nichol, André Luc Dupon


The Tobacconist

Directed by Nickolaus Leytner (Austria, 2020)

Review by 
Paul Green

Director Nickolaus Leytner, known chiefly for his work in German television, has fashioned a conventional coming-of-age story set against a backdrop that is anything but conventional, and which is, given the pandemic times we live in and the proto-fascist leanings of our powerful neighbour to the south, more than a little alarming.

Seventeen-year-old Franz (Simon Morzé), who spends a good deal of time contemplating the world from the shallow bottom of the lake where he loves to swim, lives with his mother Margarete in the sylvan Attersee Lake district in 1937 Austria. And while the Nazis are not yet running things, the Anschluss of March 1938 is mere months away.

For young Franz, things start happening when his mother’s latest lover is electrocuted by lightning while swimming in the lake. (Never a good idea to go swimming during a thunderstorm.) Unable to support him anymore, Margarete packs him off to Vienna where she has arranged for him to work at the tobacco shop of one Otto Trsnjek (Johannes Krisch), presumably one of her former lovers.

Otto is a sort of gruff humanist who lost a leg in the First World War. He sells cigars, cigarettes and newspapers to all comers – Jews, Communists and Socialists – but he has no time for Nazis and when a supporter comes in looking for the national socialist paper, Otto politely sends him packing.

Based on the popular novel by Robert Seethaler, The Tobacconist (German title: Der Fabrikant) affects an understated style, offering up a drab portrait of pre-war Vienna and, perhaps reflecting the director’s background in television, depriving the viewer of some of the depth one might expect from a script set during this tumultuous period.

Franz is not a particularly ambitious protagonist, but he gets on well with his employer who is prone to philosophizing about cigars and life. There is something totemic about cigars in this film because it is Otto’s cigars that have made famed psychologist Sigmund Freud (deftly underplayed here by the formidable Bruno Ganz in his final film) a regular customer in his modest shop.

In what is perhaps the heart of the film, Dr. Freud takes a liking to the boy who delivers his cigars and asks him questions about life and love. Surprisingly, the good doctor candidly admits he knows little about love, but observes sagely (I think) that while we know nothing about water, that doesn’t stop us from jumping in.

And in a manner of speaking, that is precisely what Franz proceeds to do with a young music hall dancer he meets at a fairground. Anezka (Russian actress Emma Drogunova), literally from Bohemia, is a sensual beauty whose specialty number is a slightly tacky Indian maiden dance of the sort that would be much frowned upon today. Sparks fly and while they are very well matched in a physical way, Anezka, who is after all an “artiste,” prefers not to limit her options and consequently leaves him flat.

Infatuated as he is, Franz doesn’t understand any of this, but it matters little as he has other things to worry about. The Nazis are in power, the tobacco shop has been vandalized and Otto arrested. In his latter meetings with Dr. Freud, he urges the doctor to follow his family’s advice and remove himself to London, which of course he does.

In short, Franz is growing up and learning about responsibility; he keeps the shop going while making fruitless inquiries at Gestapo headquarters about his employer and keeping in touch with his mother.

In keeping with the film’s “Freudian” leitmotif, Franz has a way of fantasizing about the women he meets – always at that first encounter – and he is constantly having surreal dreams, usually involving water. In the cluttered room at the back of the shop where he sleeps, a spider is sometimes seen rappelling down from the ceiling or crawling across the page of an open ledger. And the cigars…so many symbols!

I thought it entirely appropriate that Franz’s first love did not work out, as it certainly left him with much to think about and remember. Under the wise tutelage of the worldly wise if cynical Otto, Franz has grown up to be a “mensch” and not a Nazi, even if this is going to complicate his life in the immediate future.

A thoroughly enjoyable experience and one I intend to repeat, if only to watch the great Bruno Ganz once more as he slips effortlessly into the role of Sigmund Freud.

German with English subtitles.
Running time: 113 minutes.
Probable rating: 14A.
Available at Glebe Video.

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