Some of my all-time favourite film exchanges (and in general, really) are from Sam Mendes’ American Beauty (1999), when main character Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) joins his wife Carolyn (Anette Bening) for a business dinner. She introduces him to an estate agent (who also happens to be her lover, but that is beside the point), to which Burnham replies that they have actually met before. When the estate agent naturally pretends to remember it, Burnham replies with a calming smile: “It’s OK, I wouldn’t remember me either.”
A fish out of water. The films are not particularly similar, however, this scene features several elements which echo current German comedy Toni Erdmann, written and directed by Maren Ade. We meet the relatively steely career woman Ines Conradi (Sandra Hüller), who works in outsourcing for an international company based in Bucharest, and who suddenly gets a visit from her father from Germany. The semi-retired children’s piano teacher and perpetual joker Winfried (Peter Simonischek) decided on the impulse trip partly due to his dog dying, and partly because he suspects things are not as great as his daughter portrays.
Ines squeezes her father into her tight schedule by taking him along to a work do where the unkempt man is like a fish out of water – thus creating some moments with obvious associations to American Beauty. The similarities are, however, not only found in the situation comedy, but also in some of the themes, as both films depict a form of rebellion against the social roles people are expected to play.
Alter ego. In Toni Erdmann, this happens first and foremost as daddy Winfried extends his stay in the Romanian capital and takes on the part of ”businessman and coach” Toni Erdmann – complete with a long-haired wig and protruding false teeth. This way he becomes part of the daughter’s professional and social crowd, without her choosing to blow his cover (for several reasons, some more obvious than others).
With this premise, it is perhaps natural to compare this film with the classic comedy Tootsie (1982), in which Dustin Hoffman plays an actor pretending to be female in a bid to gain a part – and this way learns a few things about how women are treated. But, whilst a more expected storyline would have been to make Erdmann some sort of guru admired by everyone, Maren Ade chooses a rather more realistic approach, whereby the characters – akin to us in the auditorium – view him as a strange and charming weirdo.
Nevertheless, the father’s alter ego functions as the traditional fool, exposing and ridiculing some of the mechanisms of the international business world. Also here, it is mainly about the way women are treated in a still male-dominated world, as when Ines brings Erdmann to a difficult client meeting because the presence of an older, male (and predominantly silent) colleague adds gravitas and respect. Throughout, the film clarifies some of the gender codes found in this environment, for instance when male colleagues at a work gathering discuss where they are going out afterwards – and not least when Ines’ is forced to show the wife of a potential US client, around the Bucharest shopping centres.
Although it does feature some gloriously embarrassing moments, Maren Ade, sympathetically enough, cares too much for her characters to give in to the awkward face-in-palm humour which is almost ubiquitous in the aftermath of the TV-series The Office and Curb Your Enthusiasm.
Character-driven. Lasting a whole two hours and 42 minutes, Toni Erdmann is in it for the long haul. This means that it is more character-driven than what is usually found within the typically more plot-based comedy genre. As such, you could argue that it is more of a comedy drama, or a drama featuring comic performances, rather than a pure comedy, as the, generally low-key, film frequently calls for chuckling rather than laughing out loud. Although, it does feature some gloriously embarrassing moments, Maren Ade, sympathetically enough, cares too much for her characters to give in to the awkward face-in-palm humour which is almost ubiquitous in the aftermath of the TV-series The Office and Curb Your Enthusiasm.
Class society. Aside from the feminist aspect, the film does not show today’s multinational business world in a flattering light, but without portraying the people who inhabit it as particularly unsympathetic. New, as well as traditional, class divisions are clarified in a very uncontroversial manner. Not least in choosing Romania as location, which seems to be for completely different reasons than when Norwegian films productions are made there.
However, the core of the narrative is the slow and sometimes uncertain approach between father and daughter, an emphasis which reinforces the film as having one foot within the drama genre. The performance is ambling and somewhat subtle, but the film, nevertheless, adheres to a relatively traditional dramatic composition. There is a suspicion early on, that the two are not as dissimilar, after all. And, that their important, albeit unspoken, connection is a shared melancholy.
Focus on family. A timely question is why do films that feature career women as its main characters almost always focus on these characters’ (often deficient) family relationships? Although Ade’s film does not emphasise greatly the fact that the thirtysomething Ines is childless, the backdrop of divorced parents living in another country seems to be a not insignificant aspect of her evident loneliness. How often do we see male film characters dedicating themselves to work, but their lack of family contact, or even an altogether absent family, never becoming a topic? I dare to suggest that this is more frequently than with their female counterparts, and I suspect that this shows a less than progressive view on what women’s priorities really should be.
On the other hand, most films portray something personal, rather than only depicting a character’s professional challenges. This is, however, not a major critique of Toni Erdmann. Its father-daughter relation forms the basis for two finely-tuned and nuanced character depictions which, undeniably, are some of the film’s main strengths. Besides, the main character’s loneliness is just as much connected with the male dominated environment she is part of, and which the film criticises.
”Honey, don’t be weird”, is Lester Burnham’s wife’s reply to the aforementioned comment in American Beauty. But, this is something one should definitely allow oneself once in a while. On one level, Toni Erdmann is about recognising oneself in weird and embarrassing family traits, the way Ines, after a while, discards her expected role – and her clothes, in what is perhaps an ironic nod to the German Freikörperkultur (naturism). And what with melancholy and loneliness being other central themes here, it seems fitting that the end credits are accompanied by The Cure’s beautiful and momentously sad Plainsong.