"Are you happy?" asks Toni Erdmann

in 69th Cannes Film Festival

by Vecdi Sayar

Among the best films of the 69th Cannes Festival, a new work from German director Maren Ade, Toni Erdmann deserves a special recognition. This is a charming piece of cinema with a deep sense of humour and intelligence.

Her success had been anticipated since her debut feature The Forest For The Trees and her second film Everyone Else, which brought her a Golden Bear in 2009. Her approach to human relations is never black and white. She tries to understand the world as it is, but never stops being critical about the sad and crazy situation of today’s world. I am sure she likes Chaplin.

Toni Erdmann reflects her reaction to the alienation in human society and the search for power, which is usually identified by money. The main character of the film is a repressed, workaholic businesswoman, Ines. A consultant for re-organising companies and outsourcing their work, she works in Bucharest, far from her father, a lonely music teacher.

She has learnt to suppress her emotions to be able to survive and even in bed she can not let herself go. In fact, she is a good player in every sense but has forgotten she is a ‘player’. Her busy life leaves no space for affection or empathy. This holds true even for her relationship with her father Winfried, who belongs to the generation of 68’ and believes that another world is possible. He seeks protection from the wild capitalist world by inventing a fictitious character, Toni Erdmann. When he dons wig and funny tooth dentures, he can act freely.

Maren Ade comments on the generation gap with episodes which are funny and sad at the same time. She delivers her message via this imaginary character, Toni Erdmann. At some moments, she even uses the tones of burlesque or slapstick. She puts her characters in awkward situations, so that we can understand their – mutual – humiliation and loneliness.

Toni Erdmann conveys a realistic portrait of today’s society, where human beings have lost their natural feelings and their joy of life; where sexism in workplace is accepted without questioning; where romanticism and poetic escapes has no value. Maren Ade’s way of using humour in her film, must have been influenced by the Brechtian approach, which doesn’t allow the spectator to identify with the characters, giving hints to to a better understanding of the world.

Even in the most hilarious moments of comedy, the film gives us the possibility to think and speculate on the social environment surrounding the characters. This is a social satire on society as well as a romantic drama commenting on father-daughter relationship in our contemporary world. Ade rejects sentimentalism in every scene by using comic elements avoiding identification and leading to alienation.

Winfried uses his imaginary character to convey his anarchic view of society, resembling Shakespeare’s use of double characters in some of his plays, for example “The Comedy of Errors”. He wears a huge fur coat resembling King-Kong to express her deep feeling for his daughter.

We see different animals in the film, which Ade uses to underline our separation from nature and our desire to turn to nature. In fact, use of various animals, from wolfs to bears, not to mention cats, birds or insects, was a distinctive common element in various films presented in Cannes this year, expressing this desire.

Lensing and art direction, as well as direction of actors is marvellous. The performances of both of the leading actors, Sandra Hüller and Peter Simonischek, as well as the ones in supporting roles, strengthens the interpretation of the director. Ade tells her story in a simple but beautifully crafted style. She portrays the characters in details and makes us believe in the change Ines undergoes.

Featuring so many magic moments, Toni Erdmann will be one of the films to remember from the 69th Festival – one that underlines the fact that an ‘auteur film’ need not be boring while tackling with subject matter such as ‘the meaning of life’. The question Erdmann/Winifried asks his daughter: “Are you human?” is a very serious question and I am sure many viewers will ask the question to themselves, after the film.

Edited by Rita Di Santo