Thursday, 9 February 2017

Toni Erdmann

I haven't been to Bucharest since 1987 so I was interested to see Toni Erdmann purely for the chance to catch a glimpse of the city under new management. The new management, in a way, is one of the things the film turns out to be about - that is, the corporate world,  the culture of western big business and whether it is healthy or endurable. In addition, the film is about the relationship between a father and his daughter, (like the last film I saw, Baccalaureat/Graduation - is this coincidence or a new cinematic preoccupation?) and the meaning of life. So pretty straightforward really. Nothing complex at all.


The very first scene of the film, before we go any further, is worth noting, simply because it is so daringly mundane. It is a shot of two rubbish bins and a wall with some garden equipment stored up against it and a front door, at which a delivery man arrives and proceeds to ring the bell. The door is answered, and so the story, such as it is, begins. I say such as it is because the plot of the film is not the kind that has great urgency, although the film is eventful, (and I'm not implying it is boring, far from it - it is just not focussed on a particular outcome).

These first few minutes are designed mainly to introduce us to the man that answers the door. His name is Winifried Conradi and he turns out to be a primary school music teacher who likes slightly mistimed, misjudged practical jokes, is shocked by the celebration of birthdays on days that are more convenient than the actual birthday and is a sort of ageing, lumbering innocent, (but a very shrewd innocent). He is the kind of person, (that is, in my experience, a rather rare, unselfish and empathetic one), who is prepared to spend the night lying on the ground in the garden beside his dog during the last hours of its life. There are people I know and love like him - they are the ones who aren't shiny go-getters, they enjoy taking their time, discussing interesting topics and ideas, rather than showing off to each other; no-one dislikes them but they are probably often deep down fairly lonely, as most people are too busy elbowing their way ahead to notice them as they knock them out of the way.

It is after his dog's death that Winifried decides to visit his daughter, who is working as a management consultant in Bucharest.

The daughter, Ines, appears to be leading a life of emotional impoverishment but, in case we start to feel sorry for her, we witness moments when she throws her weight around unpleasantly and displays very little warmth toward those under her control. Her reaction to her father's arrival is - not entirely surprisingly given he gave her no warning that he was coming - not exactly overjoyed.

Ines's behaviour is erratic, making her a very difficult character to read. What are her real feelings about her life and choices? Possibly she knows perfectly well how hollow and empty the work she is engaged in is in the wider scheme of things, but she has no opportunity to choose an alternative - or possibly she recognises this intermittently, or possibly she doesn't consciously recognise it at all. When her father tries, in his clumsy way, to ask whether she is happy and to question her way of life, she throws his questions back at him. And why not? Her father may not like what he sees but his generation has passed on to the next this world in which Ines has to find her way and make her own living. No alternatives appear to be on offer. Feminism has empowered the modern woman to sell her soul along with the men and if she doesn't join in what is she to do instead? How does he suggest she support herself, if she quits her consultancy job?

Besides, much of the time she appears to be committed to the role she is playing. There is no indication that she recognises the absurdity of her behaviour when, after giving a presentation, she conducts an earnest Skype conversation with a coach about how to improve her body language in such situations. In her discussions with her colleagues - (largely conducted in the strange no-man's-land English spoken by people for whom the language is not their mother tongue) - about strategies and outsourcing, she seems engaged and committed.  Impressing - or at least appeasing - a senior corporate figure called Henneberg, an ice-cold passive aggressive whose demeanour is worryingly reminiscent of the Nazi officer movie villains of my childhood, seems to be the most pressing thing on her agenda.

On the other hand, given any opportunity during the working day - during car trips from appointment to appointment - she appears to always grab the opportunity to blank out reality through sleep, and, as the film proceeds, random cracks in her equanimity do start to appear. Whether her father's arrival is the catalyst or whether they just emerge naturally, is not explained, but it becomes clear that she is from time to time prone to something that looks like existential despair. Thus, while she farewells her father coldly, distantly, once he is gone, tears begin to roll down her face. Again, in a night club one evening, surrounded by gaiety, unnoticed she begins to cry. On several other occasions, although always only fleetingly, she is clearly on the verge of tears.

I am making the film seem very solemn but, mainly thanks to Winifried's alter ego, Toni Erdmann, the film is exceptionally comic as well, (although it did occur to me that Erdmann had certain similarities to Trump, in the sense that he is a disruptor). Surprisingly, Ines's attitude towards this antic prankster alter ego of her father's is less negative than one at first assumes. This strange clownish element is clearly a major aspect of her father's personality, (and one, although she represses it, that she, we soon learn, shares - however reluctantly). After an initial reaction of embarassment and/or shock, she actually begins to provide further opportunities for Toni's activities. She ensures that he is invited to a party that is related to her work and then co-opts him into joining her in a business meeting, after he has forced her, through a ridiculous mistake, to take him along on a trip outside Bucharest.

Her motives on this latter occasion are particularly hard to read. When her father's light-hearted flippant warmth is revealed to have dangerous consequences for others, there is a moment when a faint expression of triumph seems to cross Ines's face, as if her purpose had been precisely to teach him this lesson, to demonstrate that the world is not as benign as he would like to believe and he needs to be more careful. What happens is that, thanks to her father's naive, well-intentioned friendliness, someone loses their job; she watches wordlessly and, when he expresses his aghast remorse, she tells him, unsmilingly, that it was going to happen anyway since she will be in charge of recommending downsizing and that therefore he has done her a favour by removing from her the responsibility of robbing at least one worker of their livelihood.

This incident also highlights another uncomfortable strand of the film. Ines, (and, by association, her father) - and the frightful Mr Henneberg - are all part of a new class of masters to whom the locals must kowtow. This is evident in the desperation of Ines's assistant's desire to please, in the eager "Thank you for choosing Darius" gratitude of the representative of the catering firm Ines employs for her hilariously dotty birthday brunch, even in the willingness of Ines's lover to take her orders (and I should warn you there is a ghastly sex scene, which I at first resented until I decided it was a good way of dispalying Ines's dilemma in finding herself not just a German boss but an empowered woman negotiating sexual politics; I thought she might actually have been hoping that the man in question would be provoked to rebel and overturn the power relationship between them, taking matters into his own hands - something that, in fact, he does in a way, but sadly not in quite the way I mean.)

In the end, it seems to me that this puzzling but very entertaining film is a bit like a Giovanni Verga story, (except funny; I cannot remember Verga ever being remotely amusing). It is not made with the intention of making a point; it is simply a cinematic snapshot of a slice of messy, sad, absurd human existence in the West in the early twenty-first century. It is a portrait, rather than a lesson.  Its blend of laughter and melancholy appeals a good deal to me. The scene where Winifried manoeuvres Ines into singing a Whitney Huston song, (whose lyrics, incidentally, make a mockery of her existence), in front of a room of puzzled Romanians, who are under the impression that he is the Ambassador of Germany to Romania and she is Frau Schnuck, his secretary, is absolutely wonderful. While I wasn't one hundred per cent convinced by Ines's party, I will always treasure the line, "Oh yes, it is good for the team" and also the moment when Winifried arrives, which is alone worth the price of the ticket. I also like the running gag of the cheese grater, which I haven't even mentioned yet.

It is not giving anything away to reveal that there is in the end a touching moment of true reconciliation between father and daughter. Ines embraces him wholeheartedly, with all the warmth and affection of a small girl. The fact that she is willing to do this only when he is transformed by a highly traditional outfit may indicate a longing on her part to embrace a more traditional role for herself and to cling onto it for grim death. Or it may not. And, while Winifried throughout the film acts as a maverick spirit that has somehow survived despite the sterility of much that is modern, he finally reveals himself to be as beguiled as the rest of us by the new.  Having counselled his daughter to savour the good moments of life, to make sure she is there in them, present, he lumbers off to fetch his camera so that he can take a picture of her when a particular mood takes her, as if, after all he believes that he can hold on to what is already gone.


  1. When the lights came up, I quoted to Kathy Evelyn Waugh's comment on the dive bombing on Crete, as best as I could remember it. In his diaries, it runs roughly, "It was fascinating at first, but as time went on became dreadfully boring. It was like all things German--badly overdone."

    In fact, there were good bits, early and late. But it was too long, and I have to think that this was because somebody couldn't bear to leave scenes out. Was it the director? Was it the stars he'd have to work with again? I don't know, but half an hour or more could have been omitted with no loss.

    1. You are right. I am going to commit that Waugh line to memory