On Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann, the critics’ favourite at this year's Cannes Film Festival
When it premiered at Cannes this spring, Maren Ade’s film Toni Erdmann (2016) drew euphoric praise from international critics. Most German broadsheets displayed a ghastly provincialism, reducing the film’s significance to national issues in the flattest of terms (with plenty of football metaphors). They saw it as a return to the virtues of German comedy, or even as the salvation of German cinema. Perhaps more than with other films, how depressing, oppressive, claustrophobic, inscrutable or funny one finds Toni Erdmann depends entirely on your personal sensitivities.
Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek) is a pensioner living alone in the town of Remchingen in the southern German state of Baden-Württemberg. He is from the student-protesting 1968 generation with a petit-bourgeois streak and a penchant for jokes. His daughter, Ines (Sandra Hüller), works as a business consultant to a German company in Romania. She works hard, both at her job and on herself. Having finalized a major outsourcing project, she wants to move on, to Shanghai. Things between the lonely father and his equally lonely daughter have been amiss for some time. Winfried’s surprise visit in Bucharest is one long communication breakdown, pushing the two of them even further apart. After an argument, he leaves – only to return in the role of ‘Toni Erdmann’, infiltrating Ines’ professional life as a business coach, training partner of tennis manager Ion Tiriac, and self-proclaimed ‘German ambassador’.
When Winfried doesn’t want to be Winfried, when the social situation is too tense, too deadlocked, too dull, too tedious, he reaches into his breast pocket and pulls out his lopsided fake teeth. This gesture becomes a reflex, a firmly established part of his repertoire. A type of misbehaving that involves a falling out of one character into another. In his alter ego as Toni Erdmann, Winfried’s escapism results in a grotesque figure: the teeth are joined by a dreadful wig and an ill-fitting suit.
Winfried’s inserting and removing of his fake teeth, and his dressing and undressing, are recurring motifs, rituals of transition. In more concentrated and ruthless form than her previous works Der Wald vor lauter Bäumen (The Wood for the Trees, 2003) and Alle anderen (All the Others, 2009), in Toni Erdmann Ade focuses on the theatre of social interaction. As in the relationship study Alle anderen, the central characters are a couple but this time they are a father and daughter with relationship problems.
Toni Erdmann centres around ideas of performance. In the world of business, performance is a part of the professionalized rhetoric – like ‘challenge’ and other hollow neoliberal euphemisms. ‘I was able to claim the space’ says Ines at one point in a debriefing with her business coach after a negotiation. Before the meeting, we see her at home rehearsing her lines, adding mollifying jargon to her rigid outsourcing concept. Winfried, on the other hand, who in the opening scene confuses a clueless postman with his Toni Erdmann act, has to have the concept of ‘performance’ explained to him. So while Ines demonstrates power, confidence, control and self-discipline, Toni Erdmann embodies the exact opposite: gaffes and dysfunction, awkwardness, invasiveness, bad acting. (Toni was partly inspired by Tony Clifton, a character developed by the great comedian Andy Kaufman.)
Among other things, Toni Erdmann tells the story of how these two totally incompatible characters learn from each other. Ines incorporates the transgressive parts of Toni into her business persona, while Toni plays an increasingly active role in business. In this way, Ade takes her study of social roles into new terrain and unlike the everyday, non-strategic ‘theatre of roles’, the relationship between father and daughter is explicitly structured as a playing field (or a battlefield): Toni Erdmann’s performance shakes up social conventions and constellations. However outrageous, trashy, ‘fake’ and hard to decipher he is, there’s a genuineness to his character. Winfried himself could never be as direct or radical.
Like all of Ade’s work, Toni Erdmann is both hyper-specific and universal. She looks carefully at the context surrounding her characters: generational conflicts, global corporate capitalism, gender relations and sexism (as when Ines is asked to accompany a business partner’s Russian wife on a shopping trip, ‘outsourced’ to the ‘ladies’ programme). But rather than addressing these issues didactically, they are channelled through the characters themselves. The effect of this is open and completely unpredictable. Ade does not offer a linear narrative. Every scene contains countless small and large movements and counter-movements that guide the course taken by the characters – driving Winfried and Ines into situations as funny as they are painful.
Ade’s almost uncanny precision in portraying relationships, capturing even the smallest, seemingly inconsequential gestures (a fleeting glance, an almost imperceptible tremble of the lips) makes Toni Erdmann very hard to classify. If there is anything reliable in her films, it is probably ambivalence: instead of refining a signature visual style, as many other filmmakers do, she invests her energy in accurately rendering ambivalent emotional states. In one scene, Ines unwittingly finds herself, in her guise as the secretary Miss Whitney Schnuck, at a family gathering where her father forces her to duet on Whitney Houston’s Greatest Love of All (1985). At first, Ines makes exaggerated, parodic gestures in an attempt to distance herself from her performance. But her deliberately bad acting is soon overrun by genuine emotion. The mixture of sadness, anger, desire, despair, loneliness, shame and aggression cannot be resolved.
Toni Erdmann opens in German cinemas on 14 July 2016.