Maren Ade’s 162-minute film Toni Erdmann refuses to be boxed into a genre. An ironic suffusion of the belly-achingly funny and the intolerably serious; the prudishly proper and the rebelliously mischievous; the tragically plaintive and the delightfully uplifting. It’s easy to do depressing-funny. Toni Erdmann was moving, but I left the Teviot Debating Hall screening with a renewed optimism on life.
Although women remain under-represented in the film industry, Ade’s masterpiece is a testament to the progress we’ve made. An excellent film, directed by a remarkable woman, which explores and indicts sexism in society (particularly in the corporate world). That is something to celebrate.
Before writing the screenplay, Ade conducted extensive research on women in the business world. The pervasive, insidious sexism she witnessed is skilfully woven into Ines’ experience: the CEO who hands her off to discuss shopping with his wife instead of business; the boss who objects to her subversive independence of thought; the male employees whose gaze lasciviously stalks female passers-by.
But Ines is not a victim of this culture. She’s unafraid to assert herself, in spite of the targeted put-downs by male colleagues that inevitably ensue. And, in one delightfully revolting sex scene, a boyfriend seems, at first, to reduce her to a sex object, but Ines reveals that the balance of power is firmly in her favour.
Indeed, dishevelled main character Winfried contributes to this sexism. His alter-ego Toni Erdmann, a life coach, with protruding fake teeth and a Tommy Wissauesque wig, effectively stalks his daughter Ines. He embarrassingly appears in bars when she’s with colleagues, or outside corporate buildings farting.
All of these funny-on-the-surface episodes are profoundly plaintive. They amount to Winfried’s nostalgia for Ines’ childhood and refusal to let her lead her own life. He really sees his role as that of the life coach, holding Ines’ hand through the big bad world, when he should let her make her own way. It’s condescending that Winfried should seek to rescue Ines from her situation. Would we perceive Winfried’s interference in his daughter’s career as fatuously farcical if she were a son?
Winfried’s character is often sympathetic, however: there is a lot in the life lessons he seeks to impart to his daughter. Winfried rails against the monotonous seriousness of the business world; his unending practical jokes are a refreshing contrast. He also objects to its stone-hearted inhumanity, pleading against the remorselessly hasty firing of an employee, who fails to respect safety regulations.
Toni and Ines embody the rift between who we really are and the sides of ourselves we present. Throughout the film, Winfried masquerades as Toni, resplendent in wigs, fake teeth, and even a folk-loric hairy Bulgarian mountain monster costume; resembling something between the Gruffalo, and Sassy from The Big Lez. Nothing could better symbolise the oppressive burden required of all corporate players: that of maintaining a veneer. And, by the end of the film, Ines seems to have learnt this very lesson.
She hosts a nude office party, delighting in letting down her façade, presenting (literally and metaphorically) her naked self. Hüller’s performance is masterful. She creates a torturously constrained character, aspiring to break from the role she must play to participate in business.
Erdmann, nonetheless, puts everything into perspective. Winfried is impelled by the death of his beloved dog and an acute sense of his own mortality to reconnect with his daughter. He teaches her and us that missing meetings with CEOs is unimportant. What matters are jokes, laughter, spontaneous karaoke performances of Whitney Houston, and acquaintance with one’s authentic self.
Image: BagoGames, Flickr