In a recent interview, Argentine novelist Alan Pauls argued, “Literature has more to do with inventing a world than with telling a story.” Such is the case with Toni Erdmann, Germany’s foreign-language nominee at the 2017 Oscars. In terms of plot, it’s unremarkable: a dour workaholic and corporate strategist, Ines (Sandra Hüller), learns how to loosen up when her eccentric father, Winfried (Peter Simonischek), shows up in Bucharest, where she’s stationed. It’s the typical pairing of wise loony and self-absorbed bore that Hollywood’s been milking since Bringing Up Baby. (It’s no surprise, then, that an American remake has already been announced.) What elevates the film, as Pauls would say, is not the story it tells, but the world it builds.
This is a cartographic movie. It maps a social space with certain rules of etiquette, which Ines expertly maneuvers in an effort to further her career. Early scenes display her mastery of the game, usually played in sterile offices and swanky nightclubs. During a meeting with a client, she stands perfectly composed, confident and assured of herself, and has such presence of mind that, mid-presentation, she surreptitiously motions for her assistant to cover up a shirt stain with a flick of her cascading blonde hair.
When Ines’ father arrives unannounced, she tries to quarantine his disruptive presence. En route to a business gathering, she tells him exactly how to behave, as if she were the mother and he the child. She aims to rein in his weirdness without having to actively dismiss him and force an emotional confrontation, which she’d prefer to avoid. Of course, he predictably ignores her recommendations, butting in when he shouldn’t and ruining her choreographed encounters with clients. He does this not because he’s oblivious, but rather because he adheres to a different if equally rigorous script, which has him invading his daughter’s turf in order to rescue her from a deadening lifestyle.
Director and screenwriter Maren Ade sharply observes this subtle tug-of-war between Ines and Winfried. The father doesn’t ignore his daughter’s guidelines so much as do violence to them. He intervenes with off-the-cuff jokes, fake dentures, and a wig — and even complains, right in front of her most valued business relations, that she’s never home. Later on, he transforms into the titular Toni Erdmann, a life coach for CEOs, a parody of the kind of New Age-y buffoon that wouldn’t look out of place among his daughter’s colleagues.
Yet as her father shakes everything up, Ines remains a keen competitor. She adapts her tactics. When her bosses and clients react positively to Winfried’s presence, she commands him to tag along. When she’s forced to drag him to a meeting, she presents him as someone from her company, incorporating him into her game plan and defusing the danger posed by his unruly behavior. Winfried plays along, obediently sitting down besides his daughter, his body hunched and defeated, his head drooping slightly. Far from rescuing his daughter, he’s often coopted into her designs.
Other times, he’s more successful, and Ines is the one who alters her posture, her rigid figure relaxing into exuberant displays. In her intense rendition of “Greatest Love of All,” at a social gathering she never planned to attend, her clenched fists pump left and right, then her outstretched arms dramatically hold on to the outpouring of her voice. When he’s on a winning streak, Winfried or Toni Erdmann doesn’t droop but stands erect, proud and tall, a mass of a man. In his crowning moment, he’s costumed as a sturdy, immense creature with a phallic head — a kuker from Bulgarian folklore. His daughter, meanwhile, is stripped of all her accumulated emotional and psychological baggage — and of her clothes, as she stages an impromptu naked party for her colleagues in the movie’s (and 2016’s) best scene.
This back-and-forth is both a competition and an expression of love. Ines and Winfried are both willing to give in. He allows himself to be his daughter’s instrument while she lets him push her out of her comfort zone. As much as they might be ideologically opposed, they don’t want to totally disappoint each other. There’s a limit to their antagonism.
Something else also holds them back, something vaster than either of them: Ines is more than just an individual with skewed priorities, she’s part of a system. Her task in Romania is to help her client lay off hundreds of workers. Her lack of connection — to herself, to her parents — stems from a broader, dehumanizing tendency, as her abstract business advice concretely affects laborers on the ground. She’s both a victim and an accomplice of this system. Like the sons and daughters in Yazujirō Ozu’s Tokyo Story, who can’t properly attend to their folks amidst the post-war economic miracle, Ines cannot escape the logic of her context. Her ultimate act of defiance — the naked party — is, once the initial shock has passed, quickly explained away by her peers and superiors as an innovative bonding experience, so that even her protest against the corporate world’s formality is subsumed under its embrace.
This ambivalence about the possibility of lasting revolt makes Toni Erdmann rather disquieting. It doesn’t let viewers off the hook. One may wish for Ines to achieve a measure of freedom, because it allows for hope, yet that doesn’t happen. She loosens up, sure, but without attaining real transcendence. Her chains remain in place; they now just sag a little. Toni Erdmann understands what’s at stake: not the private destiny of an individual, but her ongoing relationship to her era. Something so complex cannot be wrapped up in a climactic note but can only drone with the enduring noise of continued struggle. The camera, in many conversations, even as it follows shot reverse shot conventions, often (though not always) avoids the behind-the-shoulder position, instead locating itself besides the characters, adopting the vantage point of a hypothetical listener, right there with Ines and Winfried. Maren Ade wants viewers to stand, not outside Ines’ dilemma but in it, with their feet on the pitch, where the game’s being played and a global future is the prize.
Guido Pellegrini (@beaucine) has been writing about film in Spanish and English for more than 10 years. Born in Spain to Argentine parents, he grew up in California, where he majored in English. Guido now lives in Buenos Aires, where he completed a master’s degree in journalism. He likes to bridge his different cultural traditions in both thought and on the digital page. His work has appeared in The Daily Bruin, The House Next Door, Next Projection, Sound on Sight, Playtime Magazine, Olfa Magazine, and A Sala Llena.