Director Maren Ade (left) with lead actress Sandra Hüller
TONI ERDMANN A
Germany Austria Romania (162 mi) 2016
You had asked what’s the worth of living? The problem is that it’s so often about getting things done. You do this, you do that and in the meantime life just passes by. But how are we supposed to hang on to moments? Now I sometimes sit and remember how you learned to ride your bike or how I once found you at a bus stop… But you only realize that afterwards. In the moment itself, it’s not possible.
—Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek)
Despite being the most popular and critically acclaimed film at Cannes 2016, Cannes critics ratings, registering the highest score ever at the Cannes Screendaily Jury grid, Cannes: 'Toni Erdmann' sets Screen Jury Grid record - ScreenDaily, the film was strangely shut out of winning any major awards in competition, where critics such as Manohla Dargis (NY Times), Justin Chang (LA Times), Kenneth Turan (LA Times), Peter Bradshaw (Guardian) and Guy Lodge (Variety) wrote that the decisions of the jury were quite simply “baffling,” especially considering the ongoing criticism targeting the festival’s scarcity of woman directors, where the festival missed a rare opportunity to recognize and reward a rising female talent. By all accounts, it was a major shock when that didn’t happen, as the film is a major cinematic statement, one of the more original works to hit the festival circuit. While nearly every film has some detractors, even on what constitutes a cinematic masterpiece, as films are often misunderstood at the outset and develop a reputation over time, what distinguishes this film is the pure enjoyment factor, as it’s hard not to dispute the sheer boldness of originality on display, written and directed by Ade in just her third film, where this far and away eclipses her earlier works in terms of complexity and scope. While both earlier films are distinctive, THE FOREST FOR THE TREES (2003) is a minimalist walk through a self-induced psychological purgatory, where a perfectly ordinary middle class setting takes a turn for the worse, shot in a near documentary style, including a final shot to reckon with, which actually draws gasps from viewers, while 2010 Top Ten Films of the Year: #9 Everyone Else (Alle Anderen) (2009) which won the Jury Grand Prize (2nd place) at the Berlin Film Festival, is a far more sophisticated portrait of a doomed, yet good looking and seemingly progressive middle class couple whose sexual attraction hides their more deep-seeded disinterest in one another, where the camera incessantly hovers near them, perpetually exposing their attempts at maintaining a socially acceptable cover façade while ignoring all evidence of a deeper divide. One might call Ade an on-the–fringe miserablist, though not full-fledged like Austrian director Ulrich Seidl, but both show a fondness for documentary realism, then embellishing the prevailing social order with remarkably downbeat unpleasantries. This film could be described as a dazzling choreography of awkward and uncomfortable moments, an unflinching portrait of embarrassment, while also offering a searing commentary on displacement and dehumanization in the modern workplace, where feeling anxious and exceedingly insecure is the new normal. At the same time, the film is a shameless father/daughter comedy battle of wills, a screwball portrait of family dysfunction, where each is willing to go to outrageous lengths to outmaneuver the other.
Delving into previously unexplored territory, most of us are not at all familiar with the two leads, Austrian actor Peter Simonischek as Winfried, the extremely unorthodox, somewhat sleazy, shaggy dog father, and Sandra Hüller, his all-too normal daughter Ines, very precise in her efforts, a stressed-out, workaholic management consultant who is subjected to an unannounced, unexpected visit from Dad, leaving his home in Germany to visit her in faraway Bucharest, a visit that has enormous implications in her already existing turbulent world of trying to establish successful corporate relations. In a film of this nature, the less you know ahead of time will likely increase your appreciation for the film exponentially, as, like any good comedy, being caught off-guard is the secret to its success. The film’s near three-hour epic scale is part of its unique spacial architecture, set in a soulless Tatiesque landscape of towering glass skyscrapers, corporate convention halls, deluxe hotel suites, expensive meals, champagne, disco parties, and elegantly pampered hotel guests with endlessly flowing drinks in ultra-chic cocktail lounges, all part of the glamorous and exquisitely clean look of global capitalism, where the superficiality of the outer veneer accounts for nearly everything, where backroom mergers and behind-the-scenes deals are transitional phases necessary to bolster the financial bottom line, where it’s all about executive privilege, protecting those at the top, making sure they remain financially above the fray, even at the expense of that loyal and dedicated army of employees that sacrifice their positions before the altar of corporate greed. Somehow, without expressly pointing any fingers or making any direct political commentary, this just happens to be the scathing setting for the film, taking place within a sprawling canvas of international commerce that initiates important meetings and special reports, transnational phone calls with interpreters, symposiums offering the presentation of bold ideas and suggestions, all with the hopes of impressing the top executive brass, as they’re the ones controlling the purse strings and are chiefly responsible for whether or not you have a job tomorrow or not. Just how far is one willing to go in order to make a good impression? Or in this case, how much humiliation are you willing to endure? In this vastly expanding, seemingly limitless world of competing expense accounts, like something out of the delirious hallucinations of American Psycho (2000), Ines is trying to make her mark, to get noticed, to earn a living in the rampantly sexist, testosterone-filled, shark-infested waters of corporate downsizing, where her proposals, if they’re to be accepted, must demonstrate the brazen wisdom of eliminating more positions than the other guy, where she must be willing to strategize and justify swift and ruthless sacrifices, like an extremely well-precisioned military operation, where the carnage is needed to win the prize and claim that ultimate victory. It’s all about the prestige of the company, supposedly built to last, while the minions of temporary workers will come and go.
Francine Prose from The New York Review of Books, December 22, 2016, Prankster and Daughter:
In a revealing scene, Conradi (Simonischek) is waiting to meet Ines in an extravagantly upscale Bucharest mall that, complete with an indoor ice-skating rink, is the capitalist equivalent of Ceaușescu’s palace. It’s the largest mall in Europe, Ines has informed him, in a country in which hardly anyone has any money. They have come there because Ines has been asked to escort on a shopping trip the wife of a CEO with whom her company (a consulting firm that advises corporations on how to “outsource” their labor forces, and in the process fire a significant number of their employees) hopes to do business.
When Ines at last appears with the CEO’s wife, who is flushed with the exhilaration of having spent so much money on luxury items, it again becomes clear—in her obvious willingness to put herself at the woman’s disposal—that Ines lives only for her work, that she is in thrall to her bosses and her “team,” and that her only desire is to succeed, at any cost, and perhaps win a hoped-for transfer to Shanghai. Her father gives her a searching look, then asks, “Are you really human?”
Without revealing any of the hidden secrets that make this film such a novel surprise, this is a film that accentuates financial insecurity, that goes out of its way to visualize economic inequity, as outside the sleek windows of the modern 5-star hotels, one sees dirt playgrounds where kids nearby play, living instead in tenement row housing where people are literally on top of one another, packed together like sardines, remnants of a forgotten era in Romania’s communist past. Add to this the language in the modern era workplace, which consists of cliché’s and an invented vocabulary of workspeak that is completely meaningless outside the workplace, as it’s a phony and fake language, sucking up to one’s bosses, agreeing inherently, without ever being able to say what you really mean, as you’re too busy degrading yourself publicly, continually deferring to the so-called expertise of your boss, where the film deftly highlights the routine humiliations of modern life. The consequences are so severe that her father asks her, “Are you really human?” While this may seem excessive, yet it all plays out in a kind of chaotic tug of war between father and daughter, by turns hilarious, excruciatingly painful to watch, yet also deeply moving, as Ade paints such an intimate portrait of two desperate souls, each trying to have their own way, where there’s a playful give and take where each plays along with the other, growing exceedingly irritated at having to do so, where it’s one of the more cleverly written pieces of cinema in recent memory, where the vastness of the ever-expanding canvas keeps imploding on itself, as the best laid plans continue to break down, requiring new strategies, where the father’s inner sense of humor is unleashed like a force of nature, or a genie exploding out of a bottle, causing such a high degree of embarrassment to Ines, who couldn’t be more straight-laced and uptight, a conscientious woman climbing a very male-dominated corporate ladder, always overly sensitive about protecting her image, where she constantly endures one pitfall after another, usually at her father’s expense, as he’s stupefied to discover this stranger inhabiting his daughter’s body. So it’s an hour into the film before he resorts to his ultimate weapon, taking on the role of his alter-ego, Toni Erdmann, a specialist in practical jokes, a guy in a cheap suit, horribly unflattering wigs, who has a habit of carrying crooked false teeth in his pocket, where his notion of being an obnoxious irritant, turning up unexpectedly and embarrassing her in front of her friends and colleagues, becomes an exercise of the surreal, as there’s nothing he wouldn’t resort to. The film largely follows the point of view of Ines, revealing her conflicting emotions throughout, where her eroding confidence in herself wears down, ultimately exposed as a mask, covering up her more vulnerable humanity, yet this is part of the workplace armor that one is required to wear, men and women, a camouflage of protective outerwear hiding the human within. The final hour kicks into a new gear and simply surpasses all expectations, as our sympathies with the two characters are constantly tested, displaying an ebb and flow of constantly shifting moods, reaching unseen heights of comic farce and outrageous spectacle, the likes of which we haven’t seen in decades, if ever, where plenty of this film is cringeworthy, yet also incredibly funny, and like Chaplin, the big surprise is how profoundly moving it becomes by the end, becoming an almost tender look at the absurdities and despairs of modern life.