You were lied to. Toni Erdmann is not a comedy.
Sure, German director Maren Ade’s Oscar-nominated ode to fatherhood (and daughterhood) is hilarious. I laughed my heart out at its quotidian absurdity. The log line primes us for funny: “Goofy older music teacher plays pranks on his upright, workaholic kid to spark a little life in her.” But this isn’t a retread of a heartwarming family comedy that might have bowed in the 90s. It’s a heart-crushing exploration of parental disappointment, but also something even deeper: a flaying look at life as an ambitious woman.
Toni Erdmann, which features an old man gaily grating paremsan on his own head, may not be the first thing you’d think of when envisioning a feminist treatise, but I’ve never seen another film so thoroughly tackle the intersection of European classism, economic globalization, and corporate sexism. (Oh, and also make me cry during a powerhouse karaoke rendition of “The Greatest Love of All.”)
Sandra Hüller – who gives the best performance of 2016 – stars as Ines, a hungry, 30-something oil consultant still trying to feel her way through her career. She’s tough and hard-working, but comes off a little desperate to prove herself: she’s the only woman on her team, and one of the few in her company. We watch as she consistently changes her opinion to match what she thinks her male coworkers want to hear, or pulls rank on her attractive young assistant to show who’s alpha. She’s clipped and abrasive, living in an antiseptic Bucharest apartment that someone else picked out and furnished for her.
At first, she comes across as merely cold – we see her through the eyes of her dad, Winfried, an aging artsy dude who can’t resist the opportunity for a practical jokes. (You know the type – kooky, lovable… but can’t see to take anything seriously. You almost never see a woman in this type of role.) He doesn’t understand why his blazer-clad child would rather pretend to take a work call on her cell than spend time with her parents during a brief trip home to Germany. When his beloved dog dies, he impulsively decides to visit Romania, where Ines lives for work. Donning a trusted set of horsey fake teeth, he surprises her while she’s having a serious conversation with her coworkers. She’s so emotionally shut down, so afraid of embarrassment, that she ignores him completely and continues the conversation. At least, that’s what we see from his perspective as he ambushes her time and time again throughout the film, each time in a more elaborate costume, until he finally gets her to break. (By forcing her to sing Whitney Houston’s aforementioned tribute to self-esteem at a stranger’s Easter party, no less.)
We soon realize Ines isn’t simply “cold” – she’s been bred to be that way from circumstance. She has to be rigid to survive at her job. After all, if she were goofy or lax, they wouldn’t take her seriously. They barely take her seriously now. She’s psychologically poked and prodded throughout the film for being a woman – undermined at meetings, used as a coworker’s sexual object, relegated to shopping with her client’s wife – all the while her male coworkers preen and undervalue or contradict her ideas. Of course this isn’t happiness, but what does Winfried want, exactly? She’s doing everything in her power to make it in her chosen field, but it still apparently isn’t enough to please her dad.
Winfried only sees his little girl, one he probably used to make laugh a lot more readily than he does now. I loved the bittersweet beauty of Ines and Winfried’s relationship (especially as someone who enjoyed the company of her own goofball of a father), but I’m struck by Winfried’s neediness. All he wants to do is make her smile, get her to loosen up, but isn’t that sort of manipulative in its own way? It’s like the Untaming of the Shrew.
Imagine if your life were an improv sketch performed with the world’s pushiest scene partner. We love Winfried because Peter Simonischek brings great warmth and gravitas to the role. Ines’ dad is certainly no schnook. But I can’t help imagine if this were about a father and a son instead of a father and a daughter. Would a dad be so interested in “lightening up” a son? Would he be so dismayed at his son’s seeming unhappiness or focus on his career? Aren’t men expected to be straight-laced in the work place, as Ines is? There’s just so much more weight to Winfried’s antics and intrusions because she’s aching to make it in a male-dominated corporate sphere. His son wouldn’t have to feign enjoying feminine activities for professional gain, like she must, because a son would never be asked to do those things at all. He would automatically fit in at the boy’s club of a company simply for being a man. I wonder if becoming a prig the price for female ambition.
This is not a critique of the film itself, but the culture in which the film exists. Of course, as audience members, we want Ines to learn how to enjoy life. And her emotional reckoning comes not too far after the Whitney Houston impersonation, when she spontaneously decides her pristine, catered birthday gathering will instead be a “naked party” – a team-building exercise, she tells her guests. (The idea comes to her in a moment of desperation before her guests arrive, as she realizes she can’t properly adjust her skin-tight dress without the help of another person.) So she strips down to nothing and greets her guests – mostly coworkers – to their shock, disgust, or silent delight. Some leave immediately, but others strip down as well.
Ade’s choice for her protagonist to bare herself in complete nudity is essential to her arc. Ines hides herself in blouses and blazers and uncomfortable heels – her “ambitious woman” uniform. Her nakedness in this long scene is not merely an awakening, but also a “coming out,” if you will, to her coworkers: she isn’t just a “woman in the workplace.” She’s a woman, period.