In 'Toni Erdmann,' Values and Generations are in Conflict
Germany's mischievous Oscar nominee opens in Milwaukee
Winfried Conradi is a mischievous clown. In the opening scene of Toni Erdmann, Winfried greets a delivery courier by pretending the package is for his non-existent brother. “He was in prison for mail bombs,” he tells the courier, who becomes increasingly anxious even before Winfried returns in disguise, with sunglasses and fake buck teeth, pretending to be the brother. “I’m looking forward to defusing it,” he says as he signs for the package.
Starring: Peter Simonischek and Sandra Hüller
Directed by: Maren Ade
Winfried is on friendly terms with his ex-wife, visits his aging mother regularly and seems to be liked by the kids in his secondary school music class. But he’s a lonely man ambling toward retirement, his computer is always freezing up, his beloved dog is about to die and his only child, daughter Ines, is a highly driven professional with no time to spare. He decides to visit her unannounced in Bucharest, where she’s working as an oil industry consultant. Awkwardness ensues.
Toni Erdmann, nominated for Best Foreign Language Film in this year’s Oscar race, is funny as well as sad—a comedy of family errors and a drama of values in conflict. German writer-director Maren Ade doesn’t reveal Winfried’s backstory but, given his age and attitude, here’s a guess: He was the life of the Green Party in the ’70s, maybe spent some time in a hippy commune and perhaps had a brief stint in a Krautrock band. His daughter Ines reacted by becoming the embodiment of soulless postmodernity, indentured to her corporation, a slave to her smart phone.
Ines is mortified when her disheveled father appears on the day of an important reception at the American embassy. She reluctantly invites him along but counsels him to claim that he’s part of a visiting “cultural program,” evidently an excuse for his palpable eccentricity. The ambassador’s anodyne advocacy of Romanian “reform, modernization and investment in infrastructure” becomes a subtext for the tension between father and daughter. Ines’ job involves selling a scheme to bust a union and outsource hundreds of jobs to cheap laborers. Winfried dons a business suit, a black wig, those fake buck teeth and a false identity as Toni Erdmann, “life consultant.” He even has business cards printed, which he happily exchanges with Ines’ friends and colleagues. He becomes the specter haunting the marbled hotel lobbies and swanky restaurants where deals are cut, jobs are lost and nations are crushed.
Peter Simonischek and Sandra Hüller portray Winfried and Ines with pinpoint emotional accuracy, roiling the sympathies of viewers. We can feel Ines’ keen embarrassment over her father—even her anger—as he threatens to monkey wrench her career. We can also understand Winfried’s pain over his daughter’s rejection of him and disappointment with the values she purchased. The rootless cosmopolitans of Ines’ world speak amongst themselves in English, the lingua franca of globalization, and fill their conversations with corporatespeak—with “team building” and “performance.” “Are you actually human?” Winfried asks Ines. They still care enough about each other for their words to hurt.
Casually, Ines glances from the window of a hotel conference room where she makes her outsourcing pitch and barely notices the nearly Third World poverty below. In a Hollywood movie, the scene would be underlined by grandiose orchestral music; somebody might conveniently pop up to make a speech. In Toni Erdmann, like its ’70s European art house predecessors, the filmmaker trusts her audience to make the connection.