Maren Ade (2016)
Toni Erdmann is an unusual and, at 162 minutes, unusually long comedy-drama. After half an hour or so, the themes and characters seem clearly defined and I wondered how the film would carry on for another two hours or so. At the end of those two hours, I couldn’t understand how it had taken the writer-director Maren Ade so long to tell her story. In between, though, I was often amused, sometimes frustrated, occasionally moved and always absorbed by the father-daughter relationship which Ade explores. Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek) looks to be in his late sixties. He’s made a living (it appears not much of a living) as a music teacher: his hirsute dishevelment suggests a superannuated hippie. Divorced, Winfried lives with his aged, ailing dog and regularly visits his aged, ailing mother. His ex-wife, now remarried, invites him to a gathering in honour of their only child Ines (Sandra Hüller) – a kind of welcome-home-cum-early-birthday-party. Ines is a management consultant, currently posted to Bucharest. Work commitments won’t allow her to be in Germany for her actual birthday so her family marks the occasion during this flying visit. Ines is tense and wary – her mind is still on the oil industry outsourcing project on which she’s working – and she’s particularly brusque with Winfried. Not long after this meeting, back in Bucharest and on her way to a business meeting, Ines is appalled to catch sight of her father hanging around the lobby of an office building. Winfried, whose dog has died, has come to Romania in the hope of reconnecting with his daughter.
And with the certainty that he’s going to embarrass her. Toni Erdmann is, at one level, a comically exaggerated take on the idea of children – even children in their mid- to late thirties – being publicly ashamed of their parents. As the audience already knows from the film’s opening sequence, when a postman attempts to deliver a package to his home, Winfried has a penchant for practical jokes. These usually involve his putting on a ridiculous disguise. His favoured props are a bad wig and prominent false teeth, both of which he’s wearing when Ines catches sight of him skulking in the office lobby. Watching Toni Erdmann involves a fair amount of schadenfreude: part of the movie’s grip comes from the viewer’s enjoying what Winfried gets up to, while realising he’s much easier to take from the safety of a cinema seat than he would be to live with. As soon as he turns up in Bucharest, he starts to interfere with his daughter’s professional life, which is so vital to her. Winfried’s doing so is the principal means of exposing the insufficiency of Ines’s work and relationships; the fact that she can’t get rid of him illustrates how part of her will always be her father’s child. Maren Ade has said in interview that Winfried’s joker side is inspired by her own father’s. She doesn’t, however – and unlike, for example, Mia Hansen-Løve – assume that semi-autobiographical material is bound to be as fascinating to others as it is to her. Ade’s screenplay for Toni Erdmann is carefully constructed and contains plenty of eccentric and entertaining incident. Strands such as Winfried’s disguises and Ines’s birthday reverberate through the story. Yet there are two persistent difficulties with the film.
First, Ade repeatedly relies on large improbabilities to generate highlights. On the first evening that Winfried is in Bucharest, Ines isn’t sure what to do with him so she takes him along with her to a reception at the American Embassy. At the reception, Ines makes awkward attempts to ingratiate herself with Henneberg (Michael Wittenborn), the oil company’s German CEO. Henneberg responds less to Ines than to the extraordinary things that Winfried says – in particular, that he’s hired himself a replacement daughter because his own daughter is always too busy at work to bother with him. To Ines’s horror, Henneberg invites Winfried to join them – along with the CEO’s wife and a couple of business associates – for drinks after the reception. This makes for some good and, from Ines’s point of view, painful comedy but your enjoyment of it is circumscribed by the certainty that Ines would never have allowed her social loose-cannon father near the embassy reception in the first place. Next day, Ines has a tiring schedule and is desperate for a short nap before the evening’s agenda begins. She incredibly relies on her father to wake her up and misses three crucial phone calls through oversleeping. Much later in the film, Winfried and Ines are handcuffed together when one of his pranks goes wrong: she’s late for an important appointment as a result. Ines was irritated as soon as Winfried approached her with the cuffs and he didn’t force them on her: why did she agree to put them on? The handcuffs symbolise, of course, the inextricable nature of the pair’s relationship – perhaps Maren Ade would justify all the above improbabilities (and others not mentioned) on similar grounds. This isn’t convincing: the decisions made by Ines in these instances are basic contradictions of the particular, workaholic way in which she’s determined to assert her independence. They’re crucial to the comedy plot but you can’t accept them – in the way you might have accepted illustrations of the same point that were brought about by circumstances beyond Ines’s control.
The second difficulty of Toni Erdmann, amplified by its excessive length, is that, for all the excellence of the two actors in the lead roles, their characters don’t develop much. From her first entrance, Ines is anxiously assertive, uncomfortable in her business outfits and in her own skin. We soon realise that Winfried’s practical jokes are the refuge of a lonely man who must laugh-in-order-not-to-cry. Sandra Hüller and Peter Simonischek both have some splendid moments, though. Toni Erdmann is one of Winfried’s inventions: he materialises during Ines’s evening out with two woman friends (Lucy Russell and Hadewych Minis), at a point in the story when Ines thinks her father is safely back in Germany. ‘Toni’ introduces himself as a business consultant, lifestyle coach and associate of Ion Țiriac. (After the references to Janet Lynn in After the Storm, it was quite a couple of days at the London Film Festival for those of us with a good memory for 1970s sporting personalities.) Winfried drags Ines along to an Easter egg-painting party, presided over by a woman to whom he’s passed himself off as the German ambassador to Romania – and Ines as his secretary, Ms Schnuck. He tells the hostess that, to thank her for her hospitality, he (on piano) and Ms Schnuck (vocals) will perform Whitney Houston’s ‘Greatest Love of All’. The first sequences at the Easter egg party seem among the most needlessly extended in the movie but Sandra Hüller’s rendition of the song is a genuine high spot. It’s relatively easy to accept that Ines would allow herself to be caught up in this situation – and that she feels it may be marginally less humiliating to go through with the performance than to explain the truth (not that their hostess believes Winfried is the German ambassador). When Ines first opens her mouth to sing, her voice is quiet and constricted with embarrassment. As she goes on (the sequence reminds you what an tiresome, rambling number ‘Greatest Love of All’ is), she gets stronger: attack is the best means of defence – and of expressing how angry Ines is with her father. The second she’s finished belting out the climax, she exits the room. This routine elicited a round of applause from the LFF audience – thoroughly deserved.
Maren Ade’s description of the impersonal business world that Ines inhabits seemed to me well observed but unsurprising. The last part of the film, however, is startling, in various ways. Her boss Gerald (Thomas Loibl) has suggested it will help team-building for Ines to invite colleagues for brunch at her apartment to celebrate her birthday (on the actual day). Everything has been meticulously prepared. Just as her guests are about to arrive, Ines gets into difficulties with her tight-fitting dress. After a struggle, she yanks it off. The doorbell rings and rings again. Ines decides to remove the very little she was wearing under the dress. Impulsively – or because this wardrobe malfunction is the last straw? As with the handcuffs, Maren Ade looks to be using what she sees as an essential metaphor in the story to spark a farcical set piece. As noted above, Ines’s power-dressing has always been under threat. She gets something on her costume even at the pre-birthday do in Germany. She traps her toes in a sofa bed as she’s taking it down (when she hopes Winfried’s stay with her in Bucharest is over), hobbles to the office for an important presentation, and goes to the ladies’ to try and remove the damaged toenail: blood from the wound squirts up and stains her white blouse. The birthday suit scene results from Ines’s culminating clothing mishap: stripping naked seems an expression of her realising it’s futile to keep up the pretence of the life she’s constructed.
Some of the arriving guests gamely join in with the impromptu theme of the party; others opt out and take their leave. The joiners-in include Anca (Ingrid Bisu), Ines’s eager-to-please PA. Among the opters-out is Tim (Trystan Pütter), whom we watched earlier in the film having loveless yet inventive sex with Ines. Gerald goes away and, fortified by Dutch courage, returns undressed. Although much of the audience roared with laughter through the naked brunch, I found it increasingly distressing – I think because, as also noted above, Ines is as uneasy under her clothes as she is in them: there’s nothing liberating in her nudity. A further guest – towering and unspeaking – arrives, identity concealed under what Screen Daily describes as ‘a traditional Bulgarian “kukeri” monster costume’. This is the climactic disguise of the shaggy hero of the shaggy-dog story that Toni Erdmann is. I couldn’t make sense of Ines’s appearing not to know at first who the hairy monster was – who else but Winfried could it be? – but his departure from the gathering and the scenes that follow are emotionally powerful. When she realises the silent guest’s identity, Ines throws on some clothes, leaves the apartment building, follows the beast into the nearby park into which he’s wandered, and embraces him. After she’s gone back home, Winfried topples over under the heat and weight of his costume. For a moment you think he’s died in it but Maren Ade then cuts to Winfried upright again, in a hospital reception area. A helpful nurse manages to wrench off the massive headpiece of his outfit. The look and weight of the ‘kukeri’ costume illustrate, extraordinarily and affectingly, Winfried’s ridiculous, inescapable need for his daughter’s love – and how hard it is for them both to get past what has come to separate them.
In a virtual epilogue, Ines returns to Germany for the funeral of her paternal grandmother, whose death completes Winfried’s isolation. We learn that the debacle of the birthday brunch brought to an abrupt end Ines’s contract in Bucharest but that she’s since got a job with McKinsey and is now based in Singapore. Winfried tells Ines that his mother’s funeral has to be a serious occasion and Toni Erdmann ends on a quietly melancholy note but – as so often in this strange, protracted, interesting film – the tone is complex, and Maren Ade’s final cadence is highly effective. In the garden, at the reception following the service, Winfried and Ines talk to each other, with unusual calm and ease. She even puts the joke-shop false teeth in her mouth. Winfried is delighted, says he must take a photograph to capture the moment, disappears to get his camera. Standing alone in the garden, Ines waits a little while then realises the moment has passed. She takes the false teeth out.
8 October 2016
 Ion Țiriac, best-known in the tennis world as Ilie Năstase’s doubles partner, became a businessman in West Germany when his sporting career was over. He returned to post-Communist Romania and is now the wealthiest man in the country.