Maren Ade's TONI ERDMANN
"Certain to be this year’s most singular and ambitious comedy."
New York Film Festival director Kent Jones in his Cannes report for Film Comment:
I’ve been waiting patiently for this movie during the seven long years since Ade’s Everyone Else, during which time she’s had two children, produced or co-produced numerous films (including Miguel Gomes’s Tabu and Arabian Nights and her partner Ulrich Köhler’s Sleeping Sickness), and taken her time creating a film that is abundant in so many of the qualities lacking in modern cinema, not the least of which are a continual deepening of character, moment-to-moment surprise, and genuine warmth.
Like Everyone Else, Toni Erdmann is a behavioral suspense story in which one character assumes the task of cracking the shell of another’s hardening false consciousness. In the previous film, it was a young woman and her boyish lover. Here, the agent of destruction is a small-town music teacher (Peter Simonischek) who recognizes that his daughter (Sandra Hüller), a management consultant whose killer instincts are growing in alignment with her sycophancy, is in spiritual danger and takes it upon himself to shock her back to her senses by making his own slovenliness, annoying antics, and sheer inconvenience—the very stuff of so many parent-child conflicts—his weapons of choice. This kind of conflict is periodically milked bone-dry in lousy American movies, but Toni Erdmann is to such vintage Hallström-Lifetime-sitcom stuff as Faces is to Love, American Style.
"The title refers to Winfried’s [Simonischek] alter ego, a brash buffoon with novelty-shop fake teeth and a Tiny Tim wig who is as hilarious and disruptive as a whoopee cushion," writes A.O. Scott in the New York Times. "At first, he seems to be an instrument of humiliation aimed at a young woman determined to succeed in business. But it becomes clear that the deeper threat to Ines’s [Hüller] comfort comes not from a preposterous character in an ill-fitting suit but rather from the hypocrisy, conformity and casual sexism that define her normal life. The world she inhabits—a banal, familiar world of meetings, PowerPoint presentations and awkward collegial socializing—seems designed to strip away personal autonomy and integrity. Which is exactly what Toni Erdmann, a slapstick superhero, exists to affirm."
Dispatching back to Filmmaker from Toronto, Vadim Rizov recommends reading Peranson's "interview in full, but some quick takeaways: writing the screenplay took nearly two years, and no scene could be written unless Ade knew what space she would be filming in, so location scouting and writing became the same process. There are 2,000 extras strewn throughout, footage captured totaled to 100 hours, and each scene was shot some 10-12 times from the perspective of one character before being shot the same number of times from the perspective of another. The term 'world-building' generally refers to TV series, but it’s apter for Ade, whose seemingly casual naturalism has been constructed in every conceivable direction. The handheld style seems almost calculatedly rough around the edges, simulating the sensation of watching classic verite; this illusion is sustained through carefully written and performed, definitely sculpted narrative scenes, a heavy feat."
"This indeed is a film of reactions," writes Michael J. Anderson, Director of Curatorial Affairs at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art, "above all, with Ines’s focalized as she is made to relive an exaggerated version of adolescent embarrassment (that might be excruciating if it was not so funny, nor Winfried so fun-loving). It is also, certainly, a film of performance, not only Winfried’s masquerade as the title character, but also Ines’s in her professional life…. Incorporating everything from the absurd… to the lightly silly to a gross-out gag that one-ups the Farrelly Brothers, Toni Erdmann is certain to be this year’s most singular and ambitious comedy."
"At 162 minutes long, it never lags," writes Steve Erickson in Gay City News. "Don’t be put off by the length; this is one of the year’s most entertaining films."
The Voice's Bilge Ebiri finds that the film has "a real feel for both the incessant drone of corporate bullshit and the unspoken terrors of family relations." And for Howard Feinstein in Filmmaker, it "maintains momentum via fairly broad humor and the depiction of well-researched details about the new imperialistic capitalism connecting wealthy Germany to struggling Eastern Europe, an extended episode of Survivor! in which all rules are bent." More from Abbey Bender (Brooklyn Magazine) and Matt Fagerholm (RogerEbert.com).
Notebook editor Daniel Kasman asks Ade about the comedy: "I knew that I wanted this ‘playing a role,’ the father playing a role, to go very far with that. So, with that, I looked for comedians doing this, because comedians often have their alter egos, they work with that, and I got very addicted to Andy Kaufman, all he did. So I was watching this for weeks. It’s very interesting that he never left the role when he was once in. He was a very good actor, I think; not only a comedian but also very straight and he has that character, Tony Clifton, this bar singer, a very big, bad guy. So, the name of Toni, I had to make it clear that I liked this. With other films, I mean, I watched comedies, also old things, but, it was more this—comedians whom I found interesting."
"What advice do you have for other female directors?" asks Women and Hollywood. Ade: "Consider trying to become your own producer."
Toni Erdmann screens today and Tuesday at the NYFF and Ade and Hüller will take part in Q&As at both screenings. And there's a talk with Ade tonight, too. Sony Classic will release Toni Erdmann in the US on Christmas Day.
Update, 10/4: "Toni Erdmann is often hilarious, yet also brilliantly attuned to the language, strategy, and rituals of power within Ines’s professional realm," writes Jon Dieringer at Screen Slate, "But as it progresses, the film skirts disappointingly close to the kind of outright sentimentality it has theretofore eschewed."
Update, 10/7: "Toni Erdmann relies on shot/reverse-shot technique primarily, I think, because of the need to show reaction shots," writes David Bordwell. "A good part of comedy is reaction, and camera ubiquity allows us to watch the gag and the payoff in a tick-tock editing rhythm. Ade can time people’s responses to Winfried’s sinister leer in ways that maximize the laugh." But, as he explains, Ade complicates things as well.
Update, 10/10: "On the one hand," writes Girish Shambu, "Toni Erdmann works broadly in a classical-realist mode. This sets it apart from—and ostensibly renders it more 'conventional' than—so much festival/art-house cinema which frequently tends to wear its modernism on its sleeve (specifically, the downplaying of elements such as character development, psychological realism, and clear temporal continuity). And yet, while embracing certain 'traditional' values, the film also pushes them so far that they emerge into a space that is qualitatively different from what we encounter in 99% of realist cinema. Call it a revelatory supra-reality that feels genuinely bizarre and dangerous—and yet carries a potent ring of truth."
Update, 10/18: The BFI's posted "some of the screenwriting advice that Ade shared at a BAFTA lecture after the screening and which gives intimate insight into her creative process."
Update, 10/29: From Nelson Kim at Hammer to Nail: "I wrote of Everyone Else that it’s 'a great vision built out of the accumulation of small, precise details.' But when (to name two critics I admire) Manohla Dargis says that Cannes 2016 will be remembered as the year of Toni Erdmann ('a work of great beauty, great feeling, and great cinema') and Amy Taubin calls it a Rules of the Game for the 21st century—well, I don’t know whether they were being a little too breathless in their praise and their prose, or whether I got the wrong idea and so failed to appreciate the film that was right in front of me."
Update, 12/14: "In the most basic sense, as in Ade’s two previous features, the film taps deeply into the complexities of being a human being," writes Samuel T. Adams in Brooklyn Magazine. "While some aspects and events of the film seem dangerously close to being unbelievable, this is surely a study in magnified realism, and it is certainly a riot."
Update, 12/20: "Toni Erdmann boasts a tonal range that no other movie this year can match," writes Mike D'Angelo at the AV Club. "This is a high-concept comedy that’s firmly, almost defiantly rooted in the real world, among fully three-dimensional human beings whose behavior doesn’t conform to a rigid template. There’s nothing else like it in theaters right now."
Updates, 12/21: "In the filmmaker’s no-nonsense humanism, mortification motors the plot so that a modicum of dignity can be restored," writes Melissa Anderson in the Voice. "Toni Erdmann remains constantly absorbing through its precise examination of even the most mundane interactions."
Hillary Weston talks with Ade for Criterion: "I like the parts when I’m more alone, and I’m always like, 'Oh no, now I have to go shoot it.' The shooting can be very stressful, so I’m always afraid of that. But after a while it gets boring sitting around alone at home, so it’s good that there are so many faces, and because of that, the five years went by very fast. But when you have good footage, the nicest part is the editing because you can still be creative but you don’t need to interact with too many people."
Updates, 12/25: For the New Yorker's Richard Brody, the comedy "is so on-the-nose, so constrainedly linked to specific points that [Ade] is making, that it stays on the safe and solid edge of the treacherous psychological terrain that it hints at. Within the intimate story of the film, Ade is after big ideas and big phenomena, a virtual cross-section of the political corruption, economic malaise, and inhuman indifference of contemporary Europe." But "it’s a movie with no inner life."
"Even if you happen to sympathize with the grim feeling that Toni Erdmann appears to have about 21st century life," writes Nick Pinkerton for Artforum, "there’s a real paucity of empathetic imagination in the gaggle of caricatures, divided between white-collar grotesques and Decent Common Folk, that Ade provides for Ines and Winfried to interface with—and there’s something suspect about a 162-minute movie that only finds time to develop two characters in the round."
For the New York Times' A.O. Scott, Toni Erdmann is "a thrilling act of defiance against the toxicity of doing what is expected, on film, at work and out in the world…. This film’s generous, skeptical spirit is in any case more diagnostic than prescriptive. Like its hero, it wants to shake its audience, at least for the moment, out of habits of complacency and compromise, to alter our perceptions and renew our sense of what is possible."
Francine Prose for the New York Review of Books: "Every performance in Toni Erdmann, particularly those of Simonischek and Hüller, is spectacular, and we register the actors’ skill at the many small moments that make the nearly three-hour-long film a continual pleasure to watch; the silences are nearly as telling as the dialogue."
"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," writes Celluloid Liberation Front in the Notebook. "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."
"So much of Toni Erdmann is… played out on the edge between hardened realism and sublime screwball," writes Peter Labuza for LAist. "Ade rarely frames with overt expressionism nor precise visual cues, but she remains keenly aware of how her performers work in spaces (in one interview, she noted she only wrote scenes in her screenplay after finding the location)…. Ade has left nothing to chance while making everything feel spontaneous—she's made Jean Renoir's The Rules of the Game for a new age and a new generation."
"The second time around with Toni Erdmann," writes Susan Wloszczyna at RogerEbert.com, "I looked at both Winfried and Ines a different way and came to the conclusion that she is definitely her father’s daughter." She explains.
And here in Keyframe, Clara Miranda Scherffig: "The trigger in Ade’s films is the disturbance of social norms, centering on the female protagonists’ refusal to feel ashamed for having altered those very conventions. Proud, strong, tenacious, annoying, crazy, childish, occasionally anti-social, sometimes vain, often lonely but also very funny, and fiercely independent. These are Maren Ade’s women, people who want to be themselves and struggle to be taken as such."
For ScreenAnarchy, Dustin Chang talks with Ade, Hüller and Simonischek. And more interviews with Ade: Amir Ganjavie (Keyframe), Calum Marsh (Playboy) and Esther Zuckerman (AV Club).
Update, 12/28: "What’s so impressive about Ade’s film is the sheer multivalence of its conceit," writes Lawrence Garcia at In Review Online. "It’s a deft character study of two wildly clashing temperaments, a skewering of European bourgeois pretense ('I like countries with a middle class,' says the wife of a company’s managing CEO), and commentary on the soul-sucking nature of corporate culture, yet it still registers as entertainment (something of a dirty word in the arthouse scene) of the highest order."
Update, 1/8: Stephen Saito interviews with Sandra Hüller, who talks about "finding her way into a character she initially didn’t connect with, and how in a film full of outrageous moments, it was Ines’ business presentation to her corporate clients that gave her the most sleepless nights."
Update, 1/11: Colleen Kelsey talks with Ade for Interview.
Update, 1/12: For Brooklyn Magazine, Emma Myers talks with Ade "about alternate personas, false teeth, and Andy Kaufman wrestling ladies."
Update, 1/14: For Women and Hollywood, Melissa Silverstein talks with Ade and Hüller "about making history, blurring genres, and the most memorable—and unconventional—nude scene of the year."
Update, 1/23: For Michael Smith, Toni Erdmann "functions as a subversive and even angry critique of global capitalism." And "while the film ends with Ines in a better place, Ade is also smart enough to retain a hint of ambiguity. Ines is, after all, still working the same job, still peddling on the same cutthroat capitalist treadmill, only at another company."
Updates, 1/26: "Working in a superficially realist style, with eruptions of strange behavior and unforeseen insights, Ade also approaches the stratosphere of surrealist provocations by Luis Buñuel," writes Ray Pride at Newcity Film. "In the spirit of Buñuel, Ade offers up her own nightmarish dinner party, a slow-motion nervous breakdown that will not end; a raft of symbols that fairly shout but don’t lurch toward needful interpretation; and a blunt sex-and-food consensual act that goes way beyond not giving a damn. But the grace of Ade’s filmmaking across its glorious, necessary 162-minute running time, is that Ines at one just-perceptible moment decides the game is on."
And the Guardian's Catherine Shoard interviews Hüller.
Updates, 4/26: "It’s my favorite kind of ending: open ended, evanescent, hardly anodyne." Greg Gerke elaborates in the Los Angeles Review of Books.
"Hüller excels at something extremely tricky here—allowing us see how much Ines hates her job but at the same time showing the satisfaction she gets from being so damn good at it." Sean Burns for WBUR: "Simonischek exhibits a similar subtlety, allowing Toni’s silly costume to work against Winfred’s wounded, hangdog demeanor."