What Leading Critics Get Wrong About the Film, Toni Erdmann

Toni Erdmann is a newly released German film, nearly three hours long, about a father who tries, and succeeds, at convincing his daughter that her corporate life is bullshit.  The film is seen as a call to authenticity, rejecting corporate yea-saying and conformity.  It has been lauded in this role by such distinguished critics as Francine Prose in America’s leading intellectual periodical, the New York Review of Books (“Prankster and Daughter”), and by New York Times reviewers A.O. Scott (“In ‘Toni Erdmann,’ Dad’s a Prankster Trying to Jolt His Conformist Daughter”) and Rachel Donadio (“How Toni Erdmann Became an Unexpected Comedy”).

Prose, a brilliant novelist as well as critic, extols the film: “It’s rare that a film can have one of its characters pose a question that so baldly states its larger philosophical concerns—What does it mean to be human and how should a human being live?—without seeming overly obvious or sanctimonious. But Toni Erdmann gets away with it, in part because its characters are so complex and precisely drawn (we are fully persuaded that this father would ask his daughter that) and in part because the film is at once so understated, so broad, and so funny. . . .

“In fact, humor and the ways in which humor expresses our humanity and allows us to get through the day is one of Toni Erdmann’s themes. It’s not Ines’s workaholism that her father is questioning so much as her inability to have fun, to relax and laugh. To Ines, life is a succession of PowerPoint presentations and performance reviews, while to her father, it’s a series of irresistible occasions for practical jokes.”

Here are the opening scenes, as described by Prose:

When we first meet Winfried (the mocking father) he’s playing one of the many pranks with which he will amuse himself throughout the film. He convinces an increasingly anxious delivery man who brings a package to his door that the parcel contains a live bomb and that he has just gotten out of jail for sending bombs through the mail; the ticking that can be heard, he explains unconvincingly, is only his blood pressure monitor. Soon after, we watch him at the school where he teaches music. He and his students, their faces painted to make them look like zombies, sing a merry song about death to celebrate the retirement of an elderly teacher.

Wait a second.  Why does the delivery man deserve to be mocked and made anxious?  True, he works for a corporation, or for the government.  But isn’t he just trying to get by, like the rest of us, perhaps a little more constrained because he is low man on the corporate ladder, unlike Winfried, who is seemingly independently funded and lives well without having to work. How did the deliveryman become a character in Winfried’s cruel comedy?

And why should school children be made to confront and to mock death in grotesque make up and false teeth—which Winfried wears, to our discomfort, through much of the film.

We next see Winfried show up at a party his ex-wife is throwing for their daughter, Ines, from whom he has been alienated seemingly her whole life, and much of the film.  He declares to his former spouse how they must have gone wrong with their daughter, who is insistent on climbing the corporate ladder.

Don’t we currently react negatively in psychology to parents who reject—and shame and mock—their children?  How does this oaf with unlimited free time get away with making his mockery and derision seem like fun?  Here is Prose’s description of the father waylaying his daughter on a work mission:

Surrounded by her co-workers, she spots him and pretends not to know he’s there; her glimmer of recognition is so fleeting and subtle that we may at first be unsure of whether she’s registered his presence. A little later, she asks him how long he’s planning to stay in Romania, and when he jokingly answers, “A month,” we watch her already taut features stiffen with sheer terror. “That was real fear,” he rapidly observes.

Funny, huh?

Prose and the other reviewers find the discomfort and mockery Winfried displays towards others throughout the film hilarious and enlightening for the victims. In his—what else can it be called—stalking of his daughter, he becomes the film’s namesake, Toni Erdmann:

His name, his [sic] tells Ines’s friends as she silently fumes, is Toni Erdmann, an alias and an alter ego he will maintain through much of the second half of the movie. He is, he claims, a professional life coach. As it turns out, that’s precisely what he does, helping Ines to “work on her charisma,” forcing her to look more deeply at her life, chipping away at her brittle shell until she begins to display some elements of her father’s sense of humor and his predilection for doing and saying outrageous things with a perfectly straight face.
Is that how life coaches work?

Ines comes to imitate her father in a bizarre, intermittently funny, scene in which she throws a corporate party in which she strips and greets her guests in the nude.

The first such guest is not a co-worker, but a friend.  The woman, seeing Ines undressed, expresses her sympathy by laughingly (though uncomfortably) saying she too is always running behind.  She offers to help in the party preparations while Ines gets dressed. Ines instead tells her the party guests will all be naked.  The friend doesn’t want to be naked, and Ines then forces her to leave.  Even then the friend doesn’t display anger.  She seems to be a very good friend, not someone to be rejected and mocked for being too uptight to undress in front of strangers.

And so what is the humane lesson we are to take from this film?  That our stupid lives are shit, unlike Winfried, who lives alone, doesn’t work, and is divorced and aloof from his daughter, incapable of exchanging a sincere or warm word with her (they do hug at the end, with Winfried dressed in a crazy all-encompassing costume, after which Ines runs away, leaving Winfried, in extreme discomfort in his outfit, to find a stranger to help him out of).

Don’t get me wrong.  If there is meaningful work for Ines to find, I’m all for it (I’ve never succeeded working in an organization myself).  But trying to bring economic development in countries, with all of the dislocation and havoc this has wrought, is not something I would disdain.  Such efforts can be done in a better or worse way, but these developments are not going to disappear.  And so should we run around in crazy make-up and gear humiliating people who are involved in the mayhem of the contemporary world like, say, Bernie Sanders, who seemingly wants to make people’s lives better?

Winfried makes no one’s life better, including his daughter’s, unless you consider her being like him a great boon—which I’d say only Winfried considers to be the case among the film’s characters.

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