Having attended the Sydney Film Festival for nearly a decade now, certain themes have tended to emerge and recur from season to season, as they must at most film festivals. In particular, there has been movement towards and proclivity for films that aim to restore fatherhood – and especially white middle-class fatherhood – as an indie, fringe or “minor” position, rather than a position that has been more matter-of-factly marginalised by an increasingly globalised, sexually diverse and multicultural public sphere. Often these films will compensate for that inevitable diminution of white paternal potency by investing it with a certain subcultural glamour or allure, and while that can certainly be comic and enjoyable to watch at times, it also has a certain ring of disingenuity to it as well. At this year’s Sydney Film Festival, I saw two films on successive nights that, to me, addressed this situation in vastly different ways. On the one hand, Matt Ross’ Captain Fantastic represents what might be thought of as the summative statement on this brand of indie fatherhood, not least because of the extent to which it takes its cues from the freak folk aesthetic in vogue roughly a decade ago, when this “minor” mode of family drama really started to take root. On the other hand, Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann takes the opposite approach, focusing on a father who progressively and parodically divests himself all all fatherly wisdom in order to provide his daughter with a way out of the paternalistic allure that has blighted her professional life. In the process, Toni Erdmann achieves the near-impossible – a story about a father providing his daughter with life lessons that also manages to avoid all the pitfalls of sentimental paternalistic “wisdom” – in one of the most beautiful films about a father and a daughter that I have seen in any context or from any country.
In Toni Erdmann, that particular father-daughter duo are Winifried Conradi (Peter Simonischek) and Ines Conradi (Sandra Huller). Winifried is a retired teacher living in Germany, where he spends his day helping out with drama presentations at the school where he used to work, as well as dressing up, putting on face paint and playing pranks on his mother, ex-wife and wider family. Ines, on the other hand, is a corporate consultant stationed in Bucharest, where she is responsible for managing the downsizing and outsourcing of factory labour. From the very beginning, then, there is a real contrast between Germany, which is presented as domestic, old-fashioned and somewhat heimlich, and Romania, which is presented as the new heart of Europe, epicentre of an economic reform that has seen a massive influx of American business interests, many of which Ines represents in her daily consulting life. Apart from a pair of short sequences in Germany that bookend the main part of the story – which is over two hours long – the entire film plays out in Bucharest, against a wildly disorienting backdrop of indeterminate accents and multilingual exchanges. That sense of utter incommensurability between Winifried’s home life and Toni’s working life – which comes to a head when she returns home for her birthday in the opening scenes – is what sets the film in play, as Winifried decides to pay a visit to Bucharest in order to spend some quality time with his daughter, as well as to reproach her for not spending more quality time with him when she does return home to Germany. Given that jokes and pranks are one of the key ways Winifried connects with people, and given that Ines, while not exactly humourless or unsympathetic, remains largely unresponsive to his hijinks, it feels like the motivation for his trip to Romania is also a matter of trying out new material, or at least an impetus to devise new material that will be good enough to bring about a rapprochement with his daughter.
At first, that all plays out as a somewhat tasteless exercise on Winifried’s part, who abruptly shows up in disguise at one of Ines’ work functions, where he berates her for being a bad daughter and jokes with one of her prospective clients that he too has come to Romania in search of outsourcing, although in this case he is outsourcing a daughter rather than an employer. Given the sex trade in Eastern Europe, it’s a fairly unpleasant joke, and the index of its unpleasantness is that this corporate client – who has utterly ignored Ines so far – suddenly starts to show an interest in her through her misogynistic father, inviting her out to a corporate drinks function but only on the condition that Winifried come along as well. In a weird kind of twist, Winifried momentarily ends up becoming Ines’ biggest asset, and yet it is only by ridiculing, undermining and “chastising” her that he has been able to facilitate such a big break, something that becomes progressively clear to him over the course of the drinks function, which is possibly the first time in his entire life that he has witnessed, in a sustained and first-hand kind of way, just how demeaned Ines is in this particular kind of corporate environment. Worse, it becomes clear that Ines has only been placed in charge of outsourcing because the delicacy of this particular process requires a “feminine” touch that the company is keen to disavow, even as it forces her out onto the coal face of the layoff and restructuring process every day. While the full implications of that become clearer as the film proceeds, it is enough at this point for Winifried to see that his pranks have only brought him closer to the people oppressing Ines, and for the rest of this particular party sequence, his agenda becomes more and more unclear, just as it becomes harder and harder to tell if his jokes are still occurring at Ines’ expense, at the expense of her corporate contacts, at his own expense, or at anybody’s expense at all.
It is at this point in the film that Winifried’s stance starts to shift from reproach to curiosity, as he sets out to find a way to make contact and spark Ines’ curiosity in turn, since it is clear that she is utterly miserable but just as clear that appealing to her reason and sympathy is not going to be enough, just because reason and sympathy have been so incorporated into the “interpersonal” tact she is expected to bring to her particular corporate portfolio. That project is all the more challenging in that Winifried and Ines are by no means alienated from each other: there is just enough of a connection there for both parties to pretend that it is enough; or, rather, for Winifried to have pretended for some time that it is enough, since it is equally clear that Ines is not especially satisfied with their relationship as it currently stands. In the space of a couple of scenes, then, Winifried goes from being a “knowing” father to realising how little he knows about Ines and how much more he has to learn to put their relationship back on track. In another film, that might involve Winifried retreating from his jokes and pranks to a more sustained seriousness, but given that masculine self-seriousness is such a hallmark of the corporate world Ines inhabits, he ends up going the other way, taking his woolly, daggy, shaggy dog humour to such a preposterous conclusion that it ends up imploding any claims to wisdom he might have once invoked and, in doing, so, provides a kind of comic counterpoint to all the men in Ines’ professional life who invest themselves with the self-serious wisdom that has demeaned in her in the first place. Falling back upon default dad pranks only to realise that they have simply brought him closer to all the people oppressing Ines, Winifried uses that intimacy and proximity to help demystify her world – and liberate her from it – from the inside, if only by providing her with some infinitesimally small space to laugh at the people who demand such rapturous attention and acclaim from her for the smallest gestures on a daily basis.
It is at this point in the film that Winifried settles on his main persona – Toni Erdmann, a bloated, belching businessman decked out in a ridiculous pair of false teeth who occasionally intrudes into Ines’ actual business transactions, but is usually just hovering in the background, like an off note or visual glitch. Funniest when he is simply wandering in and out of the frame, Toni may still pull some of Winifried’s signature pranks, but he exists more as a general and emergent absurdity, a disjunctive murmur that is always hanging around the edges of the vast streamlined regulations that govern Ines’ daily routines and mise-en-scenes. Brutally undercutting his own gravitas and self-seriousness in order to divest her bosses of some of their own gravitas and self-seriousness, Winifried’s aims become more modest as the film proceeds: to just provide his daughter with a bit of breathing room, as well as to show her in his own particular way that she doesn’t need his wisdom after all, although that of course is also about the profoundest wisdom he might impart. Key to that process is the way in which Winifried utterly identifies with the role of Toni, with only a small fraction of his performance actually taking place in Ines’ direct presence. On the one hand, that continually piques Ines’ curiosity – in a wonderful sequence, she follows him out of a restaurant to an extravagant hummer that she would never have seen otherwise – as well as providing Winfried himself with a pretext to continually encounter her in own world with all the freshness of someone who is not really a part of it. At the same time, however, Winifried’s identification with Toni also feels like an admission that his own fatherly pretensions are just as impotent and absurd as Toni’s business pretensions, although it is that very fragility and fallibility that opens him up to Ines as the film proceeds. In a very real way, Toni is simply a caricatured version of aging and feels quite continuous with Winifried’s opening prank, in which he puts on a death’s mask to scare his own mother half to death in a nursing home, only to head off to a local school production where he is using it to farewell a “deceased” – that is, retiring – teacher much as he was farewelled the previous year.
As might be expected, then, the film quickly reaches a point where every corporate backdrop and exchange starts to feel inherently ridiculous, just because we are always anticipating the arrival of Toni from somewhere on the fringes of the action. What’s more, Ines starts to act in increasingly absurd and liberating ways as well, pre-emptively factoring in Toni as a potential presence in even the most unlikely scenarios, as well as growing more and more comfortable with talking to him in character when he does appear. At times, that creates quite a screwball atmosphere, as Toni provides Ines with the possibility of cross-purposes within an otherwise regulated corporatese, someone she can share a look with, which works beautifully against Huller’s face, whose flat expressions are always offset by the slightest convulsions and mobilities, perfect for a character who is always struggling against the ignominy of her career even if she is desperate to prove herself as well. Indeed, as the screwball scenarios become ever more extravagant and flamboyant – at one point they are handcuffed to each other moments before a business meeting – Toni and Ines take on the verbal combativeness and sparring synergy characteristic of the screwiest friendships, with Ines, in particular, challenging herself to see how seamlessly she can manage and integrate Toni into her working life, which of course means going to ever more dramatic and preposterous lengths to accommodate his presence.
All of that culminates with the incredible final set piece, in which Ines engineers an utterly Erdmann-esque spectacle – a naked team-building exercise that completely implodes the lascivious entitlement of her male bosses – only for Toni himself to turn up in a giant furry costume, so big that it scrapes and buckles across the apartment ceiling. The juxtaposition of this plethora of naked pale bodies and this giant muppet outfit has to be seen to be believed, and makes for one of the most incredibly surreal and comic tableaux I have seen for some time. More importantly, though, it suggests that Ines has finally learned how to be Toni Erdmann, pre-empting his arrival with such an absurd scenario of her own that his entrance feels like a genuine collaboration for the first time, rather than a comically incongruous intrusion. As might be expected, that sense of communion and collaboration morphs the comedy into something more touching and strange, as Ines follows Winifried, still in costume, across the road into Bucharest’s Herestrau Park, where she chases him, catches up with him and buries herself in his shaggy folds as the evening light starts to fall. It’s the moment in the film at which Winifried takes Toni to his logical conclusion as a giant shaggy dog, or a beard that has engulfed his entire body, a process that turns out to have taken its toll, as he stumbles to a nearby hotel where the receptionist helps him take off the headpiece moments before he passes out. Willing, to the last, to admit the fragility and mortality of his fatherly pretension, he finally makes contact with Ines, and almost suffocates himself in the process, in one of the most beautiful moments between a father and daughter that I have ever seen committed to the big screen.
It feels right, then, when the film returns to Germany for a brief epilogue scored around the death of Winifried’s mother and Ines’ grandmother. As Ines and Winifried wander around each other at the funeral and wake, there is an even more heightened awareness of Winifried’s mortality – after all, he is next in line – as well as an exquisite awareness that whatever fatherly wisdom he might have to given is now even more fragile and precarious than it was in Bucharest. In other words, there’s no need for Toni Erdmann as a point of contact any more, although that doesn’t necessarily mean that Ines has entirely escaped her corporate life – she’s simply moved to a new and more open company in Singapore – nor that she and Winifried have achieved any kind of perfect communion. Instead, Winifried has given her what he set out to give her – breathing space – and she acknowledges that in the final sequence, in which she takes the signature false teeth out of his pocket, where they’ve been since Bucharest, puts them on and looks him in the eye with an expression of such unbearable and exquisite sympathy that I was reminded of the end of City Lights. Here, as there, the epiphany is transitory, with Winifried going back inside and Ines taking out the teeth before the screen cuts to black, but that fleetingness was always a part of Winifried’s gift as well, which was about embracing the comedy and absurdity of the individual moment as much as officiously forcing Ines to make some kind of systemic change in her professional life. Divesting himself of wisdom in order to give her wisdom – a gift of wisdom in the most literal sense – and divesting himself of pathos so that she might see the true bathos of the men governing her professional life, Winifried provides Ines with a line of flight more than an ultimate answer or solution, and that line of flight feels tremulous and precious right up to the very end. In this day and age, Toni Erdmann suggests, it’s not simply the case that fathers can’t still provide daughters with wisdom, freedom and independence, but that all those lessons have to be more ingeniously hard-won than ever – and Maren Ade’s breathtaking film is a hard-won masterpiece, as well as one of the most beautiful connections and communions between a father and daughter I have ever seen in a cinema.