Fool rushes in
A tragicomic family drama, with whoopee cushions
A set of comically protruding dentures and a cheese grater serve as Bakhtinian weapons in a father’s mission to rescue his daughter from the forces of neo-liberal darkness in Maren Ade’s third feature-length film. Toni Erdmann is the first German film since 2008 to have been included in the main competition at Cannes, and while it did not win the 2016 Palme d’Or, it certainly won the hearts of the public and critics alike. The distinctiveness of Ade’s film is not to be found at the level of form, her cinematographic means being largely unadventurous. Its significance and complexity lie in the narrative. Drawing on a classic serio-comic tone-shifting repertoire, Toni Erdmann addresses the chasm between the idealistic, value-driven Sixty-Eighters and their pragmatic, often apolitical offspring. Yet Ade’s film explores not only a subtly drawn father–daughter relationship, but also the damaging effects of twenty-first-century globalization on everyday experience.
Sandra Hüller, in the role of Ines Conradi, masterfully captures the troubled nature of her character, vacillating between a ruthlessly hard demeanour and considerable emotional vulnerability. A management consultant based in Bucharest, Ines proposes extensive cost-cutting measures to an oil company, these being designed to render the company more competitive, but entailing the firing of hundreds of Romanian workers. Pale and unhappy, she is nevertheless forceful and canny in the soulless nouveau-riche world that she has chosen to inhabit. Yet her body expresses that which she cannot quite articulate in words: her profound unease at being at the forefront of a neo-liberal efficiency-enhancement campaign.
Her father Winfried (Peter Simonischek) is a retired music teacher, an ageing radical with a “green mentality” and a penchant for wearing ridiculous costumes and playing silly but endearing practical jokes. Masks and clownery are his weapons of choice, but all is not well in his world either. His beloved dog dies; he loses a private piano student and accepts temporary engagements at local schools, all the while caring for his dying mother. And he is lonely. When he pays his daughter a surprise visit, his attempt to rescue her from her world is clearly also an attempt to rescue himself.
Unsurprisingly, Ines does not appreciate the arrival of her shabby-looking and chronically jesting father. A relic from a bygone age, he embarrasses her in front of her business contacts. Winfried’s attempts to question his daughter about her feelings result in testy exchanges. And after Ines has abandoned him in a vast shopping mall, where he sits forlornly for hours amid a collection of Michael Kors bags, he asks her whether she is “actually still a Mensch”. She in turn wonders out loud whether he “is still planning to do anything with his life other than pushing whoopee cushions around”.
Things go from bad to worse, and Winfried leaves town. Or so Ines believes, until a shaggy-wig- and false-teeth-wearing man who calls himself Toni Erdmann enters her world, claiming that he is a well-connected coach and businessman. To Ines’s astonishment, her father’s new persona appeals to her colleagues, and for a few days she plays along with his charade. A whirl of carnivalesque energy, Toni Erdmann overturns the social hierarchies of Ines’s sociosphere, challenging pieties, etiquettes and ready-made assumptions by playing the lovable fool. Although assuming a false identity, he seems to be the only authentic person in a world beneath whose glittering façade workers are suffering and all human relations are seen in purely economic terms. Slowly, Ines begins to reconnect with her hitherto suppressed emotions, breaking conventions in her own ways, no less humorously than her father, if rather more disturbingly.
Ade’s film is, however, no reassuring feel-good work in which father saves daughter, unambiguous goodness triumphs over evil, and the political convictions and ethical standards of the 1960s prove to be the antidote to a heartlessly neo-liberal present day. The generational gap is not bridged; the work of capitalist destruction continues; not only can the representative of the “green mentality” do nothing to halt it, he even contributes to the destruction in his naively bumbling way. Rather, the film possesses both the intellectual and the affective power of the tragicomic at its best. In the darkness and the often hilarious humour, there are moments of genuine emotional warmth between father and daughter, not least when, in the film’s final scene, Ines takes her father’s crooked dentures out of his shirt pocket and puts them in her own mouth, as though to acknowledge that humour – however inadequate to bring about redemptive sociopolitical change – may still be the most effective form of resistance.