If there were an English equivalent of the German expression fremdschämen—basically, feeling embarrassed for someone else—it would perfectly describe one of this year’s most celebrated films, Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann. German culture entertains a curious relation with public embarrassment, showing a diffused inability to cope with awkwardness which usually escalates to even more intense levels of discomfort for everyone involved. Yet if the cultural premises of Toni Erdmann are so intrinsically unavoidable—I haven't read a single review where the film's German-ness goes unmentioned—then Ade has succeeded in transforming a very country-specific sentiment into a universal and empathetic experience. Viewers and characters collide awkwardly against each other like loose balls on a pool table for nearly three hours; the result is explosive, and touching at the same time.

Toni Erdmann is a slapstick father-daughter comedy imbued with subtle yet crucial elements changing its reach and scope. Ines (Sandra Hüller), a thirty-something career woman working in Bucharest for a German company, receives an unexpected visit by her hippie father Winfried (Peter Simonischek) after his dog dies. The two couldn't be more different: While the father is a boisterous music teacher with a screwball humor he plays up in any circumstance, the daughter is an ambitious career-oriented and uptight consultant. She's completely absorbed in her work, and her drive to scale a male-dominated world has transformed her into the rigid-almost-frigid type, so serious that she seems unable even to engage in casual conversation. But the grotesque scenes that burst out of father-daughter interactions have less to do with their opposite personalities than with the involuntary re-staging of the classic parent-adolescent squabble. This time, though, Winfried’s practical jokes and unruly behavior make it clear that the roles are reversed. For her birthday, Winfried gives Ines a special cheese grater, concealing in the wrapping several 100-Euro notes. This feeds into the general awkwardness of the film, as we know at this point that Ines makes more money than Winfried ever did. Winfried is a byproduct of the post-war generation and, in scenes where he cares for her, or tries to protect her, nothing chauvinist or paternalistic is intended. Unlike him, Ines' workmates are executives and CEOs who exploit her skills and loyalty for their own goals. Worried that his daughter might be in “spiritual danger” in the toxic corporate context of her job, Winfred decides to look after her in his own bizarre way; he repurposes himself in the hilarious guise of Toni Erdmann, a business coach with a fuzzy black wig, unconventional manners, and alleged connections with Bucharest's business elite. Albeit angrily, Ines plays along, granting this character, and thus her father, access to her private life.

The film also offers a well-researched insight into the social texture of Romania's recent economic growth. Besides the criticism against a certain type of ruthless capitalism, Toni Erdmann masterfully glides through power, gender, class, expat culture, Euro-trash, a Whitney Houston singalong, even Bulgarian traditional costumes; nothing is superfluous. In one of the last scenes, the famous naked sequence, Ines suddenly owns her father's absurd charade and brings it to another, bolder, level. This is one of the most uproarious, disturbing, awkward scenes you'll ever see. It's also a case where cinema indulges your recurring nightmare from high-school, that one where you end up naked in front of the whole class. This is how, despite the film's overall sophistication, Ade succeeds in making her film understandable and enjoyable pretty much for any human being. Finally Ines subverts all the awkwardness she's been subjected to, and renders it as her own strength, and catharsis.

Fremdschämen and self-embarrassment are painful experiences because they publicly expose our own or other people's shame when social conventions are disrupted. In Toni Erdmann, Ines' emancipation (or re-appropriation of her lost personality) passes through an act of rebellion, breaking all imaginable rules. 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.

Everyone Else

There was great anticipation for Ade’s third opus. This must come as no surprise, along with questions regarding what took her so long. Far from being a slacker, Ade has pointed out that she produced seven other films and gave birth twice in the meanwhile. At the time of its release, in 2009, the German director’s second movie, Everyone Else was welcomed as a gem among critics and festival-goers, and was awarded the Silver Bear at the Berlinale. The film opens by a swimming pool; thirty-something Gitti (Birgit Minichmayr) addresses her boyfriend's nephew quite bluntly: “Listen, if you can't stand someone, me for example, it's not all that bad. It's only bad if you don't tell me. Answer me, I want to know why you think I'm so awful.” She then pushes the little girl into yelling back her hate and mimicking shooting her “dead” in the pool. Her boyfriend Chris (Lars Eidinger) and his sister observe the scene from afar—he's smiling, while she looks petrified. The sister is “everyone else:” a judging community that looks with perplexity, if not hostility, at Gitti's behavior. Everyone Else is about a couple that involuntarily tests its stability during summer holidays in Italy. Still, in Ade's great style, the relatability of a certain experience is crumbled into its most intimate details, offering thus both a compelling character study and a story we've never seen before.

The two lazily kill time in Chris' father's villa (whose set-design suggests, as does Toni Erdmann’s, the sharpest eye on what furniture can reveal about humanity), and seem close-knit and understanding of each other. Gitti is beautiful and a bit sloppy, with a very straightforward and idiosyncratic humor. She is fun—but not for everyone. A girl so special is hard to conquer, and Chris takes pride in her boldness and anti-conformism. But it can take almost nothing to transform her strong point into a disturbing flaw. When a richer, more successful acquaintance of Chris covertly lectures him over an improvised dinner, Gitti steps into the discussion and points out how patronizing he is. She does so abruptly, in a crescendo that quickly exceeds the friendly teasing. And it's not really in Chris' defense; it's more a reaction against phoniness and intellectual arrogance. But then—in a male-dominated discourse—she's isn't taken seriously and smugly nicknamed a “Brunhilde,” a warrior-woman from the Nordic mythology. Chris seals her burning humiliation with an unforgiving line: “You're so embarrassing.”

Everyone Else also addresses a couple's communication problems; but while this becomes clear to the audience, it isn't to the protagonists. Chris soon starts seeing Gitti as everyone else, and she in return forces herself into being another kind of woman, wearing feminine dresses instead of her usual leisure-wear, and playing the part of the tamed, loving girlfriend. Like Toni Erdmann, Everyone Else flirts with “costumes.” It plays with the idea of acting, even in real life, as to remark that we—and especially women—are eventually what society makes of us. Sometimes it's also about censoring or obscuring one's own personality—and some people, like Gitti, don't accept this. Eventually her rebellion will be more troublesome—yet not less radical—than Ines', in a final act that will satisfy our most sophisticated desires of revenge.

The Forest for the Trees

Ade's first film, 2003's The Forest for the Trees, was her thesis project at the Munich film school and won the Special Jury Award at Sundance. It sketches out a series of themes that recur later in her work. At the beginning of the film, young teacher Melanie Pröschle (Eva Löbau) walks into a clothes shop with the idea of “buying herself” some respect among the pupils in her school (by purchasing a suit that gives her a more adult look), and also hoping to make new friends, since the shop assistant appears to be her neighbor. Needless to say, catastrophes await. From the childish decoration of her apartment to the awkward social rituals she entertains with fellow professors, Melanie fully embodies the frustration of those who, despite proudly wearing a so-called social costume, won't fit into society. Her last action is less liberating than Ines' or Gitti's insubordination, though, and because it's an action for herself only, and performed in loneliness, it more closely resembles an implosion than a societal rebellion.

Lining up this and other clues in the three films Maren Ade has written and directed, we could come up with a progression that not only parallels her creative growth but also radicalizes her portrayal of female characters. Following this thread, Ade's filmography suggests that self-determination starts within the walls of the self, then works against the other (a partner), and eventually flies in the face of society. This may be just one interpretation of this filmmaker's striking oeuvre so far, but it surely draws the path of her artistic establishment.