Plays at Cinematheque March 8 to 26
On paper, the plot of Toni Erdmann may seem innocuous. The Oscar-nominated German-Austrian film is the story of Winfried (Peter Simonischek), an elderly German man, and his daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller), a corporate consultant living in Bucharest.
When Winfried sees how unhappy Ines is in her corporate life, he invents the comic persona of Toni Erdmann, a bizarre alter ego he inhabits, and inserts himself into Ines’ work life in an attempt to cheer her up.
It’s admirable that writer-director Maren Ade is able to inject that seemingly silly premise with such high narrative and emotional stakes. Sure, there’s plenty of silliness (“Toni” himself is just Winfried in a bad wig and fake teeth, looking a bit like someone microwaved Tommy Wiseau). But Ade invests her characters with a depth and humanity most comedies lack either the wisdom or courage to explore.
Take Ines’ plight, for example. Just saying, “She’s unhappy in her work,” may not seem like the stuff movies are made of. But anyone who’s had the experience of feeling trapped in a loathsome, soul-crushing job will recognize that Ade understands this predicament to a T.
She demonstrates the way corporate culture can benefit toxic personalities and vice versa, creating a sort of feedback loop that forces other people in the workplace to either adopt that toxicity or be pushed further to the margins.
There’s a deeper political commentary at work here as well. The setting of Bucharest’s corporate world is an interesting one. Characters make casual, passing references to former leader Nicolae Ceaușescu and Romania’s brutal communist past. While the Romania we see onscreen is a far cry from Ceaușism, it’s not nearly as far a cry as it should be.
Rather than revitalizing the country, European corporate culture has merely invited a select few Romanians into the fold, with the rest of the country not much better off than in decades past. Despite working at a Bucharest-based company, Ines’ colleagues are mostly German or American. Most of the Romanians she meets live in slum-like conditions in the shadows of office buildings or ramshackle rural cabins on the outskirts of oil fields.
Mixed up in all of this is Winfried, who couldn’t feel more out of place. Already an eccentric when he’s at home, the aged hippie is a total stranger to the corporate world (the fact that “Toni” is the character Winfried creates to try and infiltrate corporate culture is a hilarious miscalculation). His particular brand of good-natured ’60s troublemaking is totally foreign in Bucharest, a place where repression and violence has robbed people of the privilege to make good-natured trouble.
This may all sound rather heady, but fortunately Ade understands that these conflicts are more a recipe for comedy than anything else. Make no mistake, Toni Erdmann is as funny as it is moving or thought-provoking. It’s a comedy about family, generation gaps and culture shock. It’s about work, mortality and time slipping away. Those are all scary words, and Toni Erdmann understands that laughter is the best way to disarm them.