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Review: "Toni Erdmann," Saboteur

Maren Ade's historic film, effortlessly mixing family drama and screwball comedy, gives shape to a systemic crisis in Europe.
Celluloid Liberation Front
Toni Erdmann
That Europe is nothin' on earth but a great big auction, that's all it is, that bunch of old worn-out places, it's just a big fire-sale, the whole rotten thing.
—Tennessee Williams
We must laugh at this disgrace, not over this disgrace which would be detachment, but rather by amicably deepening the discussion of central issues such as sabotage as a function of self-valorisation. Every act of sabotage is happiness and the risk it implies fills us with feverish emotion, like waiting for a lover.-
—Toni Negri, Capitalist Domination and Working Class Sabotage
Of all the prizes Toni Erdmann has been awarded so far, the LUX Prize, given out by the European Parliament to those “films that go to the heart of European public debate” is the most fitting and paradoxical at the same time. Fitting because Maren Ade's film is the film that has finally captured the existential crisis of a continent that welcomes the free flow of capital but not that of its casualties. Paradoxical because the European Parliament, an extra-democratic institution with no effective powers, is symbolically responsible for having turned Europe from a union of welfare states, to an expendable offshoot of the global financial market.   The choreography of the film is in fact the plastic outcome of a business plan gone astray, a business plan some still refer to as the European Union.
Purged from the iconographic stereotypes only Woody Allen can be excused to still associate Europe with, Toni Erdmann represents the first pertinent formulation of what a truly European cinema could look and feel like. A cinema that doesn't hide in the festival circuit and its self-referential irrelevance, but that looks in the eyes the ongoing catastrophe of a continent squeezed between neoliberal radicalization and a resurgent fascism. Gone are the annoying French couples running through museums (mere by-products of the Marshall Plan), defunct are the impotent lovers of an Italy that never was, and in their wake a featureless corporate Europe has emerged: the culmination of the consumer holocaust Pasolini had foretold. A continent increasingly divided between aseptic ghettos of privilege where the past has been mummified so that tourists can consume it, and rancorous suburbs of blind rage. An inhuman landscape where high-living is a window away from the slums and the Wild East has “the biggest mall in Europe” but “none with enough money to buy anything.” A finally Americanised Europe meritocratically divided between winners and losers.
One such “loser” is Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek), a man in his late 60s who jokingly suggests hiring a surrogate daughter to replace his biological one who is too busy working her way up to corporate beatification. “Mine is never at home, and this one even cuts my toenails,” he explains to one of her daughter's clients. Winfried has a penchant for pranks which he delegates to his buck-teethed, wig-wearing alter ego—who will later in the film turn into the titular Toni Erdmann. His brilliant career as a schoolteacher is exemplified by the musical party he throws for a retiring colleague, where he and the schoolchildren dress up as mummies and ghosts singing a song that likens retirement to death. When his daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller) visits him she hardly puts down her phone, so Winfried decides, following the death of his dog, Willi, to pay her a surprise visit in Bucharest where she works as a management consultant (i.e. she helps companies sacking their employees to maximize profits). Her father's unannounced arrival is anything but a pleasant surprise for Ines, who's in the middle of closing a very important contract. Not to mention how awkward his father is (and makes her feel) catapulted into the cosmopolitan business community Ines reluctantly introduces him to. It takes Winfried's Brechtian presence to betray that corporate atmosphere of joyless cordiality where the client is always right and everyone else is lying. Sociably embarrassed by her father, Ines cries tears of guilt and relief when he finally leaves.
But it's way too early to rejoice, as our hero decides to stay in Bucharest to sabotage her daughter's career. Winfried adopts the fictional identity of Toni Erdmann, an imaginary business coach allegedly working for a big shot in town, and proceeds to tail her daughter's every move and appointment in an escalation of hilarious set-pieces. While laughing out loud the audience gets a glimpse into a much-maligned but very abstract world which the director frames in all its unremarkable mediocrity and tedious luxury. Corporate hedonism next to Winfried's exuberance and impropriety appears as nothing more than a disappointing, material consolation. His actions are aimed at the reactivation of the emotions Ines seems to have anesthetized as part of her job description. However inappropriate it may be, Toni Erdmann's sabotage of her career is clearly an act of love that for a moment, though the film remains fruitfully ambiguous, insinuates in Ines the possibility of self-esteem outside of work. His attempt to re-connect with his daughter through pranks is by no means childish nor ludicrous, it is a genuine and partially successful effort to replace formality with emotional substance, profit with feelings. Not the easiest of endeavors, admittedly. Their relationship also evinces the backward generational gap that divides the '68 generation from their children who came of age in a world where the only alternative to a corporate life is unemployment.
All this takes place under the prodigious direction of Maren Ade, who made a historic film which effortlessly mixes family drama and screwball comedy, graced by the naturalistic accuracy of a bio-political documentary. Nothing as far as moving images are concerned has managed to give a meaningful shape to the systemic crisis that has invested Europe and its illusions like this film. Acting reaches sublime heights in the spontaneous rigor of an ensemble performance where the most subtle and strenuous emotions are made tangible. The hug Ines gives her father is the stuff heartbreaks are made of, as their conflicted relationship exceeds its private dimension to become the existential allegory of a collapsing system. Ines' ill-concealed irritation measured against her father's puckish smile is the picture of a family we all belong to. That the director managed to illuminate the continental tragedy of austerity and its measures with laughter, without the need to raise the sociological finger, is nothing short of miraculous. Toni Erdmann in fact is a film from which we can start, however belatedly, to reconsider the endless potential of cinema in the life of a continent that, after succumbing to capitalist fundamentalism, is once again facing the very realistic threat of fascistic totalitarianisms. A cinema that can be urgent and (subversively) entertaining at the same time, where form and content are not theoretical excuses but practical contingencies. May this be the first of many films, for not even god knows how many Toni Erdmanns do we need to stay alive and human in this troubled and disgraced age. After all, Toni Erdmann is about capitalism, which in the film is played by Willi, the dog. He's blind and fucking dead, and so, perhaps, are we.


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