Toni Erdmann - Have You Hugged Your Kukeri Today?

in 64th San Sebastian Film Festival

by Pamela Biénzobas

Toni Erdmann

In 1985, Whitney Houston gave brand new life to George Benson’s 1977 hit “The Greatest Love of All” by turning it into a global pop anthem of self-esteem and confidence in oneself. In 2016, it has acquired a whole new meaning, and a cult status, thanks to Sandra Hüller’s glorious performance of the song in “Toni Erdmann”.

The scene in which Ines Conradi (Hüller) gives in and passionately sings about loving herself, while her father Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek) plays the piano disguised as Toni Erdmann, is not only one of the funniest moments of the film (“the” funniest comes a bit later, and lasts barely a couple of seconds). It is also the most cathartic one, and a turning point in Maren Ade’s third feature.

After “The Forest for the Trees” (Der Wald vor lauter Bäumen, Special Jury Prize in Sundance 2005) and “Everyone Else” (Alle Anderen, winner of FIPRESCI’s International Critics’ award at BAFICI and of the Silver Bears for the Jury Grand Prix and Best actress – Birgit Minichmayr – at the Berlinale 2009), the German filmmaker delivered an incredibly moving, funny and refreshingly free gaze at the (non)sense of life, at our wildly capitalist societies, and at the value of sympathy.

“Toni Erdmann” came as a huge and more than welcome cinematic blow within the Competition at the 2016 Festival de Cannes, where it garnered overwhelming acclaim, as well as the International Critics’ award (and much frustration and perplexity at the absence of official trophies). And a few months later it became the winner of the FIPRESCI Grand Prix (the first directed by a woman in 18 editions of the award.)

Throughout 162 minutes, the film allows its scenes to unfold, with a camera that is at the service of the action. This gives free rein, but also puts an enormous burden, on the two main actors’ talent, sensitivity and intelligence. Ten years after her impressive breakthrough in Hans-Christian Schmid’s “Requiem” (Silver Bear for best female performance at the Berlinale 2006), Sandra Hüller constructs a richly complex young woman caught in her own web of escapist careerism. The price she has to pay, in stress and total lack of personal life, is nothing compared to what she obtains from her full-hearted involvement in her work in Bucharest at an important German financial company. The main reward is not her success. It is the facility of having ready-made objectives in life, a set of given professional and social values she can conveniently adhere to, and thus not having to question anything.

Until Toni comes along… Hiding his own complexity behind his permanent jokes, that come from an evidently kind nature but that can be invasive and obnoxious, Winfried is both saddened and dismayed by his estranged daughter’s empty life. The ageing man is permanently witnessing how life goes by, as he cares for his elderly mother, and looses Willy, the dog who shared his life for years. Without any warning, the grieving man shows up in Bucharest and imposes himself on his Ines for a couple of horrible days. Rejected, and realizing the impossibility of true contact, he hides under yet another disguise: that of the impulsive, unrefined and omnipresent Toni Erdmann. (Though the tightest and most affectionate bond ultimately comes under yet one more – huge and hairy – disguise: the Kukeri, the new superhero of cinema.)

Maren Ade’s loose storytelling guides the action through a flow of situations. Most of them are awfully uncomfortable and awkward. One of “Toni Erdmann”‘s most incisive accomplishments (though this apparently depends on the spectator’s level of identification with Ines’s character as a child invaded by parent) is the way it plays with displeasure and discomfort. Most of the interactions in the film are either embarrassing or at least uneasy. Ade pushes this to the extreme, but avoids the easy humour of a character’s humiliation by making the two Conradis, each one in their own way, so stubbornly defiant: the uneasiness turns into confrontation.

However, despite all the action and dialogues throughout the film, it is through the gazes that it all happens. And that is where the Ade, Hüller and Simonischek are the brightest and most moving. In “Toni Erdmann”, people do not tend to look each other in the eyes, especially father and daughter, who have such trouble doing so if it is not to challenge the other. They tend to look into themselves, gazing into the empty (and their emptiness), or at their surroundings as they see them in a completely different light. Those short seconds when Ines sinks into the couch at the night club and looks in her father’s direction are among the most powerful and meaningful in film lately.

Social criticism, is also an underlying main topic in “Toni Erdmann”, as Ines is perfectly aware that her work will result in the loss of work for hundreds of people, something she accepts as inevitable.

But this issue it is so obvious that it needs no emphasis. The film finds the perfect balance between the expats’ bubble and the inclusion of the (usually invisible to them) reality of Romanian poverty to make its point about the characters’ relation to society and to the other. In the case of Winfried/Tony’s, who is naturally empathetic and tenaciously believes in kindness, this is summarized in the deeply moving “toilet” scene.

In “Toni Erdmann”, Maren Ade offers a song to humanity – and humanity can be unpleasant – through her confident and unpretentious use of cinema, which is there to capture and share the good, the bad and the ugly – and the hilarious – of our modern easy Western lives. And she probably also offers a somehow unrelated side-effect: we can bet that the film will cause a surge in sales of Bulgarian Kukeri costumes.