Movies I’ve Seen: Toni Erdmann (2016)

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Written and directed by Maren Ade. Starring Sandra Hüller (Ines), Peter Simonischek (Winfried/Toni Erdmann), Thomas Loibl (Gerald), Ingrid Bisu (Anca), and Trystan Pütter (Tim). In German and English, with snatches of Romanian.

I don’t know what Toni Erdmann is, exactly, and that lack of knowing is liberating. I don’t think I would call it a comedy, though it has a 15-minute sequence near the end that made me laugh harder at a film than anything I’ve seen onscreen in five years. I would call it a melodrama, given how histrionic some of the action and emotions get, but it’s shot in Steadicam—the slightly jittery camera got on my nerves after a while, though maybe the persistence of anxiety is part of the point—and with a muted color scheme that practically cries out “realism.” It keeps a melancholic tone throughout its 162 minutes (a running time appropriate for a family saga, not a clash-of-cultures comedy), and the movie begins and ends with deaths, but I wouldn’t call Toni Erdmann a drama. Though it centers on a father/daughter relationship, corporate capitalism is the air in which that relationship breathes, and Toni Erdmann is as much a satire (or perhaps just reportage) of globalization’s reach into our personal lives as it is a family dramedy. Rather, it’s a movie that keeps you on the edge of laughter, taking the idea of the Comedy of Discomfort (see: The Office [British version], Curb Your Enthusiasm, or practically any HBO comedy since 1999) as far as it can go, teetering between slapstick and despair.

So, it lacks a genre or maybe has too many of them. So, let’s call it a relationship film. The core relationship, between Winfried (Peter Simonischek) and his daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller, phenomenal), is that of strained family relations that grow closer—well, maybe—as a result of highwire tension. Ines is trying to close a deal as an oil consultant that will ultimately result in hundreds of people losing their jobs. She knows this. She sorta hates it. But she wants to succeed, to be good at it, to be perfect, even, though she doesn’t really know why. Her estranged dad sees her despair—though he’s projecting some of his own into the mix—and attempts to help in the only way he knows how: by being an embarrassing buffoon in Ines’s public life. He does so in the hackiest ways, with a bad wig and fake teeth and schlumpy demeanor and basic faking his way through awkward social exchanges. He effectively blows up his daughter’s life in order to save it.

Or maybe he’s not that useful at all. Parents, as their children grow older, tend to think that they have a clearer sense of their children’s needs than the children do, even though—by necessity—parents actually know less about their kids’ day-to-day lives as the kids grow into adults and thus away from their parents. Still, at Toni Erdmann‘s beginning, Ines is shot and structured as a standard Ice Queen—always on the smartphone, even at family gatherings; keeping up with things in Shanghai and Bucharest by Skype, while neglecting what’s directly in front of her; flailing at a vaguely defined (but high-paying) job that keeps her rootless, and keeps her embedded in a deeply sexist workplace; her relationship with a colleague is clinically sexual, despite a kink involving a petit four, and there’s little romantic or even passionate in her life. Ines performs her work life with a series of fixed smiles, a clipped vocal tone in a variety of languages, and with smooth facial expressions; none of it seems quite real. She needs help and, deep down in those quavering eyes of hers, she knows it. What’s interesting, though, is how our knowledge of her changes over the course of the movie. In the first third, I sympathized with Winfried’s semi-inspired clowning but grew weary of him by 45 minutes into the movie, shifting my allegiance, if you can call it that, to Ines. She’s in a tough spot, in a demanding industry that she’s not even sure she respects, much less likes. She’s in the midst of a difficult business maneuver involving multiple countries, languages, and competing professional alliances. And here comes Dad to tell her how Empty It All Is, and how keeping your humor and grace will save the day. It’s irritating, especially when it becomes clear that Dad doesn’t really know what she does for a living.

Then again, neither did I as an audience member. Maren Ade’s screenplay and direction make it clear that “consultant” is a catchall term that implies and demands of a lot of things involving PowerPoints and backroom negotiations, and that saying that one is a consultant is a way of putting on a mask, of disguising your true intentions. There’s a lot of that in Toni Erdmann, right down to the title. “Toni Erdmann” is the half-assed pseudonym that Winfried adopts while trying to improve his daughter’s life, and it’s arguable that the daughter is the film’s protagonist, anyway. Ines is the real “Toni Erdmann,” playing at roles continually throughout the movie—she makes her assistant (Ingrid Bisu) switch clothes with her before a major meeting, after a bloody mishap; she switches languages fluidly, depending on who she’s talking to; she pretends to be Toni Erdmann’s secretary, for reasons of her own. Ade makes the point perhaps too obvious by having Ines show her true self, finally, by getting literally naked—for about 15 minutes—as a corporate team-building exercise. Of course, given the genre queasiness of this movie, you can read that moment as a long-overdue mental breakdown. It’s also Ade lampooning the casual workplace sexism that Ines deals with throughout Toni Erdmann, by having Ines force anyone who wants to enter the team brunch (at her apartment) to come as naked as she is. As with so much of this movie, the scene can be read in several directions at once. And that’s before the seven-foot-tall faceless furry monster steps into the apartment.

The movie elicits nervous giggles throughout it, because the situations have the potential for high comedy, but are so often played and shot flatly. (The cast is as deadpan somber/funny as a Wes Anderson picture.) The naked team-building brunch allows for a tremendous release. The nudity isn’t played to leer at Ines (though Hüller is stunning and sexy, clothed or not) but to ramp up the laughter, with each new person entering the apartment adding to the guffaws. The audience I saw Toni Erdmann with rolled and rolled during this sequence, almost in relief. This sequence is terrific but I think a slightly earlier one gets at the heart of Ade’s movie.

During a day that starts with Winfried and Ines handcuffed to each other, and finding some Romanian toughs to unlock the cuffs1, the daughter and father end up in the Romanian countryside, at an oilfield where Ines needs to do business. It’s here that we finally get to see the people who will lose their jobs because of Ines’s corporate work, as well as the limits of Winfried’s buffoonery—he accidentally gets someone fired as a result of a bad joke; he’s disconsolate about this; Ines calmly (but not coldly) informs Winfried that her consulting firm would have fired the guy eventually, anyway. We see poverty, people in shacks with septic tanks nearby, children scheming for cash because they need it, and the general rundown nature of life that globalism tries to smooth over in think-tank conferences and trade summits.

But then, graciously, Ade shows us the flipside of this: community and familial life in action, despite the poverty. On the way back to Bucharest, Ines and Winfried stop off at a Romanian family’s house for a traditional Easter celebration. It’s a cramped house, filled with loving family members. There’s food and tchotchkes everywhere, and an egg-dyeing station in the dining room. There’s a cheap keyboard that’s perfect for drunken singalongs. Given the tonal weirdness of this movie, you just know that Winfried (in “character” as Toni Erdmann) is gonna end up playing that keyboard. Ines, who is near her emotional breaking point, will end up singing to the family. As everyone encourages Ines to sing, she resists, and I was initially annoyed by her coldness. But then, as they egged her on, I began to empathize with her—she didn’t want to come, she doesn’t really know why she’s there, she didn’t ask to participate, and now Dad’s gotten her into another fine mess. And then I realized what song Winfried was playing, and began to chuckle, and then to laugh. And then Ines finally sighs and we can see her think to herself, Jesus, fuck it all, and then she launches into…

Ines falters at first, and gradually warms to the song, and the song warms to the family around her, and this crowded scene flickers through so many emotions—hilarious embarrassment, mounting pride, a sentimental flooding of a heart, and then a kind of earned grace that fuses wistfulness and jaw-dropping, did-she-just-do-that? wonder. It’s not that Ines matches Whitney Houston’s pipes. No, her voice cracks at moments, and she gets flat once or twice. But she really, really, really feels the song. She goes all in, emotionally and performatively, in a way that she hasn’t done up to this point in the picture. (Hüller will do it again, at her birthday brunch.) That Easter moment has everything that’s in Toni Erdmann in a single scene. And then, as soon as Winfried hits the final chords, Ines bolts out of the house. She doesn’t even say goodbye. We’re not sure whether that’s out of pride or out of embarrassment, and maybe, in that instant, they’re the same thing for her.

1. Again, so many of this movie’s contrivances read like slapstick comedy on the page but visualize like kitchen-sink drama.

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Athens, GA. His work has been published in RogerEbert.com, Bookslut, The Comics Journal, Salon, The Baseball Chronicle, Jackson Free Press, and Valley Voices: A Literary Review. Follow him on Twitter (@walter_biggins), and check out his bimonthly newsletter (https://tinyletter.com/Walter_Biggins).
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