Maren Ade’s Toni Erd­mann

Shane Danielsen on Maren Ade’s Toni Erd­mann

The Monthly (Australia) - - CONTENTS - Shane Danielsen

We like to think we all laugh at the same things – that hu­mour is a univer­sal con­stant, like pi – but of course we don’t. What’s hys­ter­i­cal to one per­son may be of­fen­sive to another, and child­ish or te­dious to some­one else. Even so, there’s a par­tic­u­lar dis­com­fort in feel­ing ex­cluded from a joke. A net­tling sort of ir­ri­ta­tion.

It’s a warm sum­mer evening in May 2016, and I’m sit­ting in the Salle De­bussy at the Cannes Film Fes­ti­val, watch­ing the press screen­ing of a new Ger­man com­edy, Toni Erd­mann (in na­tional re­lease 9 Fe­bru­ary), by the Ber­lin-based wri­ter­di­rec­tor Maren Ade. Be­side me is a friend, an Amer­i­can critic who lives in Paris. The 1068-seat cinema is packed; we’re sur­rounded by pro­fes­sional film-watch­ers of every age and na­tion­al­ity, all laugh­ing up­roar­i­ously at a film that seems, to me, the ex­act op­po­site of funny. Oc­ca­sion­ally we glance at each other. What are we miss­ing here?

Out­side, af­ter­wards, the praise is ex­trav­a­gant and unan­i­mous. A Bri­tish edi­tor says loudly that he’s “never laughed so much” at a Cannes screen­ing. One vet­eran Amer­i­can critic – usu­ally a model of sober re­flec­tion – ea­gerly de­clares it one of the ten best fes­ti­val ex­pe­ri­ences of her life. Her life. Ev­ery­one be­lieves it’s a shoo-in for the Palme d’Or. (In fact, it went on to win noth­ing.)

While lis­ten­ing, I feel like I’ve passed through the mir­ror, into some kind of neg­a­tive realm where up is down and day is night. And I’ll feel like this a lot in the months that fol­low, as crit­ics and film jour­nals from Cahiers du cinéma to Sight & Sound line up to de­clare Toni Erd­mann the best movie of 2016. It might, as you read this, have just won an Os­car for Best For­eign Lan­guage Film.

I have var­i­ous rea­sons for think­ing oth­er­wise: I don’t be­lieve, for in­stance, that it nearly jus­ti­fies its al­most­three-hour run­ning time. Much of Toni Erd­mann feels baggy and in­ert, an over-ex­tended string of im­prov ex­er­cises, lead­ing to an ad­mit­tedly gang­busters fi­nal act in which songs are sung, clothes are shed and a bit­ter kind of truth emerges.

What I will say is that it seems to me not only the most over­rated movie of the past year, but also the most mis­read.

Ines (San­dra Hüller) is a crea­ture of the cor­po­rate world, a mid-level man­age­ment con­sul­tant who’s so clenched and brit­tle she would shat­ter the mo­ment she stum­bled. She’s very much a type: the am­bi­tious ca­reer-woman obliged to sub­or­di­nate every trace of fem­i­nin­ity to a sleek, fric­tion­less ex­te­rior. And Hüller – so re­mark­able in Hans-Chris­tian Sch­mid’s Re­quiem – plays her as such: watchful, per­pet­u­ally on edge, the cor­ners of her mouth turned down­wards, as if she’s try­ing to force down some­thing bit­ter.

Her fa­ther, Win­fried, mean­while, is the op­po­site. A wid­ower and re­tired mu­sic teacher, he’s given to elab­o­rate and mostly un­funny prac­ti­cal jokes, of­ten in­volv­ing dis­guises, which his fam­ily and friends en­dure with a kind of pained for­bear­ance. As played by the Aus­trian ac­tor Peter Si­monis­chek, Win­fried is a kind of sham­bling, oddly dif­fi­dent beast. Even be­fore he dresses in a furry mon­ster suit to­wards the end, I was re­minded of Sesame Street’s Snuf­fle­u­pa­gus.

When Win­fried’s beloved dog dies, he de­cides on im­pulse to visit his daugh­ter in Bucharest, where she’s been work­ing for the past few months. But upon ar­rival he finds that Ines barely has time to ac­knowl­edge him, much less en­ter­tain him. What fol­lows is, at least ini­tially, a Saxon take on an An­glo sta­ple: the com­edy of em­bar­rass­ment. Re­fus­ing to be side­lined, Win­fried at­tempts to in­sin­u­ate him­self into her life: turn­ing up unan­nounced at her of­fice, ap­pear­ing with­out warn­ing at a cock­tail func­tion. He chats ami­ably

if clue­lessly to her boss and ei­ther amuses or be­wil­ders her clients, un­til fi­nally Ines rounds on him, calls him on his child­ish­ness (“Do you have any plans in life, other than slip­ping fart cush­ions un­der peo­ple?”), and sends him pack­ing back to Ger­many.

The scene that fol­lows, as fa­ther and daugh­ter stand wait­ing for an el­e­va­tor in ex­cru­ci­at­ing si­lence, is by some mea­sure the best in the en­tire film. That Ines sub­se­quently stands on her bal­cony to wave him good­bye, as he gets into a taxi, feels like a blow upon a bruise.

But Win­fried does not go home. In­stead, he dons an out­landish dis­guise (over­sized false teeth, a dirty toi­let-brush of a wig) and sur­prises her yet again – only now he’s calling him­self “Toni Erd­mann” and claim­ing to be a life coach. (That no one com­ments upon or even ap­pears to no­tice his grotesque fancy dress, when he looks about as con­vinc­ingly nor­mal as Les Pat­ter­son, re­mains one of the film’s more baf­fling con­ceits.) And so, like some es­pe­cially re­lent­less Patch Adams, Toni/Win­fried at­tempts to thaw Ines’ frozen ex­te­rior and reawaken her dor­mant sense of joy.

Be­neath the horse­play lurk some po­tent themes: the lonely ache of par­ents for the chil­dren who aban­don them; those chil­dren’s re­luc­tance to ad­mit to the dis­ar­ray and dis­ap­point­ments of their own lives. And, most im­por­tantly, the way those re­la­tion­ships shift and in­vert as both sides grow older. I’m nearly 50. My mother and fa­ther are both still alive, liv­ing on the other side of the world to me. It hardly needs say­ing that such is­sues are very much on my mind. And yet I kind of hated Toni Erd­mann, though it took me a se­cond view­ing – un­til the very fi­nal shot, in fact – to fully un­der­stand why.

Part of it, I re­alised, was what seemed to me a cat­e­gory er­ror: the au­di­ence around me, at that Cannes screen­ing, howl­ing with laugh­ter at some­thing that clearly wasn’t a com­edy. (Some­what to my re­lief, Ade has since de­scribed her film as “a drama where you laugh some­times”.) And even if Toni Erd­mann were a com­edy, it’s pre­cisely the kind of com­edy which that same au­di­ence would typ­i­cally dis­miss with­out a se­cond thought.

Con­sider the film’s open­ing se­quence. A post­man turns up at Win­fried’s front door to de­liver a pack­age. Win­fried claims to be his own brother, ex­cuses him­self, and dis­ap­pears – only to reap­pear a few mo­ments later in an open robe, wear­ing sun­glasses and false teeth and hold­ing a half-peeled ba­nana. Notwith­stand­ing the scene’s at­ten­u­ated, “art­house” pac­ing (we hold on that closed door for 25 sec­onds be­fore the post­man en­ters the frame), it’s a pretty ba­sic gag. Had it ap­peared in, say, an Adam San­dler film, most of the crit­ics sit­ting in that cinema would have cited it as symp­to­matic of its star’s unin­spired, low­est-com­mon-de­nom­i­na­tor ap­proach.

So why the un­bri­dled hi­lar­ity? Ade’s film had only just be­gun; there was no con­text for the se­quence, no other scenes to set it against. Noth­ing, in fact, be­yond the cu­rios­ity of its lan­guage and the empty frame at the be­gin­ning, to dis­tin­guish it from San­dler’s Jack and Jill or even Ed­die Mur­phy’s Nor­bit.

Try as I might, I can’t help but sus­pect that Toni Erd­mann owes much of its adu­la­tion to the sim­ple nov­elty it rep­re­sents. A com­edy in Of­fi­cial Se­lec­tion at Cannes is al­ready an out­lier – but a Ger­man com­edy? It seemed pos­i­tively su­per­nat­u­ral.

In ad­di­tion, there’s the ques­tion of prove­nance. I greatly ad­mired Ade’s de­but, a tiny lit­tle ensem­ble piece called The For­est for the Trees, which pre­miered at Ger­many’s bi­jou Hof Film Fes­ti­val back in 2003; by her se­cond fea­ture, Ev­ery­one Else (2009), she’d grad­u­ated to Com­pe­ti­tion at the Ber­li­nale. In the years since, she’s dis­tin­guished her­self chiefly as a pro­ducer; her re­turn to di­rect­ing was noth­ing if not highly an­tic­i­pated. Peo­ple, in short, were primed to be de­lighted.

What had trou­bled me most about the film, I re­alised, was the bul­ly­ing, lit­er­ally pa­tri­ar­chal na­ture of Toni’s in­ter­ven­tion. Win­fried is a wrecker, not a saviour; what­ever good he does is an ac­ci­den­tal by-prod­uct of his own need to per­form in or­der to stave off his own bore­dom and de­spair. Os­ten­si­bly a free spirit in a world of squares, he’s ac­tu­ally self-cen­tred and un­think­ing – so much so that, in seek­ing to lib­er­ate his daugh­ter, he pushes her al­most to the point of a ner­vous break­down.

And this, in turn, im­plies that Ines is a vic­tim in need of res­cue. That her life is not only bar­ren and joy­less but also a pri­son from which it would never oc­cur to her to es­cape. She re­quires a man to save her – and the only one who loves (or even no­tices) her enough to do so is her own fa­ther. But even his in­ter­ven­tion is a form of con­trol, be­cause Win­fried stead­fastly re­fuses to take se­ri­ously the suc­cess his daugh­ter craves. Ines can pur­sue her ca­reer or re­gain her soul, but she can’t do both, and the film’s fi­nal shot – Hüller stand­ing very still, a weary melan­choly set­tling in her eyes – makes as clear as Bar­bara Bel Ged­des in the clos­ing frames of Max Ophüls’ great Caught that she’s merely ex­changed one form of im­pris­on­ment for another.

“I want my beau­ti­ful Beast back!” Greta Garbo cried af­ter watch­ing the scene in Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête in which the lion-like crea­ture was trans­formed into the comely, but rather less re­mark­able, Jean Marais as the Prince. Garbo’s state­ment re­pu­di­ated the typ­i­cal nar­ra­tive of fairy­tales: it was, es­sen­tially, a post­mod­ern re­sponse to a mod­ernist work. But there are no princes in Toni Erd­mann – hand­some or oth­er­wise – and the film’s sim­plis­tic and re­duc­tive vi­sion of sex­ual pol­i­tics, of ne­olib­er­al­ism, even of Ro­ma­ni­ans (poor but de­cent folk, we learn) not only un­fairly skews its ar­gu­ments but also lim­its its hero­ine’s op­tions. Lit­tle won­der, in these strait­ened cir­cum­stances, that the princess makes the only choice left to her. She goes with a mon­ster.

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