Is Toni Erdmann a teensy bit over-rated? Cahiers du cinéma named it its best film of the year and it also came tops in Sight and Sound’s 2016 poll of 163 critics worldwide. I saw it as an overlong (162 minutes!) exploration of a father/ daughter relationship, with some laughs, a quite worked-through dramatisation of sexist dynamics in the work-place and a thought-through but muddled critique of neo-liberalism that made its points partly through an excellent use of setting — mainly Bucharest but also rural Romania — and partly by making the character of the daughter, Ines, a corporate consultant in international downsizing with a specialism in moving jobs off-shore and firing people. What holds it together is a fearless performance from Sandra Hüller as the daughter. What raises all kinds of questions is the conceptualisation of the character of the father (played by Peter Simonischek).
When watching it I thought how well it would fit my colleague James McDowell’s exploration of the ‘quirky’ in cinema. It’s not an American Indie obviously — a friend said a poster advertising ‘German Comedy’ is what put her off seeing it at all — but it does adopt a particular tone, where the humour happens in a place of seriousness, often seeming to come out of nowhere, off-key and initially slightly off-pace in a way that changes the film’s rhythms altogether, that well fits into that style.
Toni Erdmann is in many ways about a father crashing in on his daughter’s work place and work life in a different country as a way to develop a line of communication with her and alter the direction of an oh so busy life that keeps her glued to the phone. The appearance of Toni at inappropriate times and doing things like wearing fright wigs and false teeth are so abrupt and inappropriate they carry almost a jolt of violence that can erupt into humour. Personally, I felt that if my father did those things to me, I’d have him committed. Yet, the film asks us to laugh at a father’s de facto attempts to undermine his daughter at her workplace (though the filmmakers I’m sure would see it differently, more as an attempt to get her to change her priorities and make her know in her bones that he’s always there for her).
There are several moment that friends have talked of in the film’s favour: a) The sequence were Ines has a birthday party/workplace bonding exercise where she can’t get herself to dress as the sexy/efficient/ cool corporate robot she’s become, opens the door nude, and gets some of her colleagues to join her, with mixed results. You can see that it’s a moment that’s been conceptually worked through but somehow not very well executed – that it’s better thought than filmed; and I think that gets to something about this visually undistinguished yet nonetheless highly-praised film. The boldness for which it’s praised must obviously lie elsewhere (but where exactly?).
b)Friends have also found particular favour in a scene where father and daughter go to a birthday party at the home of an upper-middle class Romanian family and the daughter ends up singing a full and atrocious version of Whitney Huston’s ‘The Greatest Love’. It’s funny to me – though it is also a bit of business that is much better executed by Meryl Streep in Florence Foster Jenkins — and clearly a moment of solidarity (if initially coerced and subsequently resulting in anger) that builds and solidifies changes initiated in the ‘nude’ party scene — but not funny enough to be given so much time to in the film.
c) The last, which no one I know can really explain to my satisfaction is a scene in a hotel room where the Ines ends up eating petit fours smeared with cum. I’m sure it’s symbolic of something. In an interesting piece on the film for Pop Matters, Alex Ramon argues that the amount of praise Toni Erdmann has received is overcompensation for a dearth of films by women this year and notes of this particular scene that it is Ines’ idea of fulfilment. But I’m more convinced by his reading of the praise then of the scene. I simply don’t get it. Most of my straight male friends have left it at ‘Eww!’
At the end of the film, Ines and Toni have bonded; she’s accepted and adopted some of his views; she’s grown. But has she changed? To me she’s merely exchanged her job as a corporate consultant specialising in downsizing with one company in Bucharest to move to another famous company to continue the same job but at a higher level in Singapore. We all seem trapped by neo-beralism, particularly when watching a film that lasts 162 minutes.
Film scholar Roy Grundmann agrees that the film has been overpraised and believes the key to understanding such a critical reception is the loss of film historical knowledge:
‘It’s interesting that the label “indie film” seems to get summoned to help people make sense of Toni Erdmann’s provenance. What is forgotten today is that mainstream cinema–Hollywood cinema–used to make films in a very similar vein. They weren’t indie films; they were studio films billed and received as off-beat comedies. Its directors were Hal Ashby and Robert Benton. If one wanted to be kind to Toni Erdmann, one would have to call it an homage. But because few today are aware of, or have actually seen, films like Harold and Maude or Being There or Nobody’s Fool, Toni Erdmann is celebrated as the second coming (though whether it can do for French desserts what GHOST did for pottery remains to be seen). Hence, it is deeply ironic that Hollywood’s rushing in to remake the film would generate so much indignation, particularly from reviewers at daily newspapers (traditionally the custodians of mid-cult in the U.S.). If anything, such a remake would bring the film’s generic provenance and artistic philosophy full circle. I must confess I haven’t seen the director’s earlier films, which have received high praise. I take it she’s no novice. It thus strikes me as odd that her five or so endings she tacks on to her movie read like nothing so much as a graduate from film school feeling pressured to select from mainstream cinema’s menu of formulaic endings, not quite able to make up her mind, and eventually deciding to just go ahead and use all of them’.
According to Germanist Brian Ha, ‘There are a couple of interesting pieces on the film in German, which provide a fair bit of German-specific context regarding humour (especially satire in recent German cinema), gender politics, intergenerational issues, particularly as they relate to the so-called ’68 generation (embodied by the father’s character), the question of it being a ‘German’ film (e.g. Simonischek is a very well-known Austrian stage actor, at least in the German-speaking world; personally, there was something in his character that struck me as more Austrian than German), etc. And I’m not sure what to make of the hype surrounding a not-especially-funny German film set in Romania, while a quite good Romanian film set in Romania by a Romanian director — Cristi Piu’s Sieranevada — remains largely overlooked’.
So there! And yet, for me, the film does work intermittently, and I did laugh, and I did find some moments between Ines and Toni touching. A conversation in a hotel lobby where the international consultants are talking about what it’s like to work in Romania, how all the Romanians they know are highly educated, usually with MA’s from abroad, how they speak several languages; but how all of this is why they also can’t be relied upon to convey the views of ordinary Romanians — they’re now a separate class, an international one — continues to resonate and I’m still thinking about it. I didn’t find the great film everyone is shouting about. But it is very much worth seeing…. if you have strong bladder.
(the views expressed here are all mine but they were elucidated through a conversation with – in no particular order – Adrian Garvey, Brian Ha, Vincent Quinn, Rosalind Galt, Andrew Moor, Louis Bayman. Mikel J. Koven, Scott Henderson, Dag Sødtholt, India Grande, Dîna Iordanova, Patrick Pilkington, Richard Pickard, Mark Fuller and Tiago de Luca)