They Can’t Take Away My Dignity
By Adam Nayman

Toni Erdmann
Dir. Maren Ade, Germany, Sony Pictures Classics

In one of the frequent record-collector digressions sprinkled into Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, sociopath Patrick Bateman describes Whitney Houston’s “The Greatest Love of All” as “one of the best, most powerful songs ever written about self-preservation and dignity” and observes that “Whitney sings with a grandeur that approaches the sublime.” He even suggests a deeper meaning lurking within the power ballad: “Since it’s impossible in the world we live in to empathize with others, we can always empathize with ourselves . . . it’s an important message, crucial really, and it’s beautifully stated on the album.”

Whether or not it’s ultimately fair to equate Top 40 tastes with the desires of a nascent serial murderer is a good question, and yet like many thorny and enduring works of art, American Psycho is more complex and polyvalent than its reputation suggests. And the same goes for “The Greatest Love of All,” which stands up just fine and figures centrally in Maren Ade’s epic new comedy Toni Erdmann, where it’s sung, karaoke-style at a Bulgarian-Orthodox Easter gathering by corporate consultant Ines (Sandra Hüller) with keyboard accompaniment by her father Winfried (Peter Simonischek), who is in disguise as “life coach” “Toni Erdmann,” while she is masquerading as his assistant “Whitney Schnuck.” Ines is performing under several layers of duress, but when the synth chords kick in, Whitney sings with a grandeur that approaches the sublime.

No less than American Psycho, Toni Erdmann is a satire of the pressurized environment of globalized late capitalism, and if Ade finds a different set of entry points into its institutionalized violence and cutthroat pathologies than Ellis, her observations still draw blood. One of the funniest moments in the movie comes when Ines, nursing a broken toe after stumbling in her bedroom the morning before an important presentation, stains her bone-white power blouse when the wound opens and sprays upwards in a hotel bathroom. Those who would describe Ade’s methodically researched and meticulously written, and yet, as directed and performed, utterly and surprisingly spontaneous-feeling film as a mere farce about a life-force father figure who tries to teach his daughter to loosen up—as a “mid-90s Robin Williams movie,” to paraphrase the second-hand grumblings of some colleagues—just aren’t attuned to how significant the details of work and vocation are to its overall design.

That said, it’s actually possible to distill the life philosophy practiced by elementary school teacher Winfried to a Patch Adams-ish level: he too believes that laughter is the best medicine. Introduced helping his young charges don black-and-white KISS-style makeup for a rollicking faculty send-off, Winfried is a thoroughly unprofessional comedian whose desire to make people laugh is received with weary fondness by those who already know him well, and yet also points to a core of Pagliaccian sadness (he wears the makeup darkly, like a chiaroscuro clown). Ade’s film is very clearly divided into three parts, and the first is mostly about Winfried’s loneliness—exacerbated by the death of his beloved dog—and his impulsive decision to travel from Germany to Romania to visit Ines, with whom, it is strongly implied (but, in this film of difficult silences and variegated levels of estrangement, never directly said) he has a very difficult relationship. Showing up unannounced in Bucharest, he dons one of his usual, modest disguises in order to surprise her at her office, and is disappointed when she tells him she saw right through it; over the course of a weekend, he gets a close look at Ines’s lifestyle and accumulates just enough social and personal faux pas that she all but shoves him out the door on Monday morning.

In both her brilliant debut The Forest for the Trees (2003) and the even better follow-up Everyone Else (2009), Ade established herself as a filmmaker unafraid to tackle moments of devastating embarrassment head on, or else an artist so in thrall to her own anxieties that she had no choice but to project them through her characters (or both). The comedy of awkwardness is a 21st-century staple, especially in the North American mainstream, where the mortified silences of Ricky Gervais’s original The Office have migrated into the DNA of network dross and specialty sitcoms alike. One way to differentiate Ade’s films from their transatlantic cousins (besides the fact that they’re just much, much better) is to say that she doesn’t use awkwardness as a device, but makes it her subject, and never lets the cringe-worthiness of the goings-on place the viewer in a position of superiority over the characters. To the contrary: when Winfried presents the sleek-living Ines with a cheese grater as a birthday present, the strained exchange about its merits permits both of them to occupy the high and low ground simultaneously—it’s a calculatedly dumb gift, almost overbearingly humble, but Ines has to concede both its usefulness and also the eternal verity that it’s the thought that counts.

As it’s difficult to explain why Toni Erdmann is so good and so compelling without explaining the next turn of its plot, it’s necessary to report that its second part finds Winfried returning to Ines’s office—and more directly inserting himself into her life—in the aforementioned person of “Toni Erdmann,” whose furry mop-top wig and Karen-Black-in-Trilogy-of-Terror-grade false teeth indicate (very clearly) that Ade is mining a strain of performative anarchy derived from Andy Kaufman (and not Robin Williams). The joke of Toni is that while his grunting, stumbling, international-man-of-renown act doesn’t really fool anybody in his vicinity—especially not his daughter, who cannot believe her eyes when he first shows up—he gets by well enough as a cuddly curiosity that the onus is on Ines to call him out. Which she doesn’t, and whether it’s out of a sense of shame (for him or for herself), self-preservation (she’s in the middle of preparing a crucial report on the outsourcing plans on the company she’s consulting for), or a biologically hard-wired fondness for improv—or all three—her reticence generates a running tension worthy of a great thriller, and turns Toni Erdmann into something truly original: an old-fashioned comedy of manners reimagined as a game of chicken.

Enough cannot be said about the sharpness and intelligence of Ade’s script, and how credibly it sketches the connections between its superficially disparate co-protagonists. For instance, the gap separating Winfried’s warmness and Ines’s chill is brilliantly shown as being connected to external factors: where Winfried/Toni can act out and still seem charming, Ines’s status as a career woman in a male-dominated field requires her to holster her weaknesses and eccentricities, which in turn has transformed her into her own blank, zombified everyday doppelgänger. In a set piece that gets very close to the punishing psychosexual gamesmanship of Everyone Else, we watch Ines essentially transform into a mirror image of her father with a more serrated edge, toying with a male colleague who’s so turned on by her sexual energy that he agrees to jerk himself off on a room-service petit four—a show of power that’s also a devastatingly sad act of self-denial. As Ines gets off on the power that’s just out of her reach on the job, she distances herself from more conventional pleasure—an inversion of Winfried’s tactic, which is to make himself outwardly ridiculous so as to be the center of attention in every situation (which, it seems, didn’t do so much for his marriage).

Ines’s unblinking commitment to the part in the not-sex scene sets up the even more astonishing bits to come, including the Whitney Houston vamp and an unfathomably long party sequence that achieves true, Surrealist strangeness and velocity. In a year where masters from Paul Verhoeven to Cristi Puiu have invoked Buñuel, Ade’s absurdist brunch gathering might actually come the closest to the Spanish master’s mixture of satirical, carnivalesque glee and purple-bruised humanity—it’s the beggar’s banquet from Viridiana (1961) and the suffocating social obligation of The Exterminating Angel (1962) rolled into one, literally stripped naked, and then topped off with an intrusion from a creature from another time, place, and dimension, one whose arrival has been hinted at all along, and whose fundamental, what-the-fuck incongruity is sturdily supported by the context of absolute realism that Ade builds for two-and-a-half hours. I can’t say that I’ve seen anything quite like the final stretch of Toni Erdmann, and also that Ade’s ability to wring, in precise order and proportion, moments of amazement, humiliation, fear, guilt, longing, acceptance, and, above all, catharsis, out of the material in play verges on authentic genius. The gesture that finally brings all of these weightless, terrifying, dreamlike sensations together is at once as cheesy and predictable as anything residing in the hypothetical Hollywood Oscar-season version of Toni Erdmann that its few detractors seem to imagine, and so mysterious, uncanny, psychological-mythological, and, above all, openly emotional that it pushes the movie attached to it into the canon all on its own.

The film would be unthinkable without its stars, who each contribute wonderfully realized performances. If Simonischek’s slouchy comportment in his dual role is maybe a bit too teddy-bear adorable, his ability to be variably actually funny and hopelessly over his head as both Winfried and Toni shows an actor thinking and adjusting his technique at every instant. Hüller, whose phenomenal, fearless work in Hans-Christian Schmid’s Requiem (2006) signaled the arrival of a major talent, is flawless in a part that would probably defeat a lesser actress (or else allow the fine balance of the movie to be capsized in the process). A relentlessly intelligent actor, she’s able to differentiate between Ines’s status-conscious yearning to be emblematic of a bottom-line professional standard and the character’s ambivalence about what she does (in some ways, this is the German-Romanian Up in the Air (2009), except that it doesn’t suck). And in the deceptively off-topic interlude involving a visit to a job site filled with the very day laborers on her company’s firing line, she believably modulates mixed feelings, including when Winfried cavalierly tells a man living down the road and below the poverty line, “Don’t lose the humor.”

Here, our ostensible hero’s “life coaching” falls perilously flat, and the real complication of Ade’s movie reveals itself: in a world where it’s impossible to fully empathize with others—and pretty demanding to empathize with ourselves, especially in the West—Toni Erdmann’s (and Toni Erdmann’s) message can’t be reduced to platitudes without insulting intelligence and integrity. And yet, to return to that karaoke jam, which is so perfectly conceived as comedy (“I believe the children are our future,” sings the daughter as her father lovingly picks out the melody) and as an intergenerational stalemate, it’s also above all a vindication of the sheer, self-pleasuring satisfaction of performance. Ines-as-Whitney really belts it out, and in doing so experiences the kind of liberation that’s unfortunately all too rare in life and cinema, and which—like the hands-off-the-wheel ending of The Forest for the Trees and the let-it-rip fart gag that caps Everyone Else—finally circles back all the way around toward vindicating Winfried/Toni’s flawed advice: “Don’t lose the humor.” It’s an important message, crucial really, and it’s beautifully stated in the film.