A German comedy?
Maren Ade’s ‘Toni Erdmann’ is one of the most misread movies of the year
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 writer-director 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 almost-three-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 International 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.