Toni Erdmann

10/07/2024

Toni Erdmann is emotionally about a father/daughter relationship, narratively about a young woman trying to succeed in her career, and politically about how Western companies increasingly encroach on other parts of the world. Ines's father wishes to spend a bit of quality time with his daughter during her birthday and takes off from Germany to Romania, where she is working for a consultancy firm: ostensibly she is there to make a report that objectively explains why modernising infrastructure in the oil industry is so important to Romanian companies, but more so that the heat can be taken off the firm who wants to lay off a lot of workers. They can claim this is based on the consultancy’s analysis rather than their demand. Ines (Sandra Huller) will write the report because she wants to get on and while this means others lower down the scale will lose their jobs, Ines will become ever more successful. 

    The film’s purpose is to balance the emotional, the trajective and the political, and does so not by treating them equally but by containing them all within a humorous absurdity that comes chiefly through father Winfried Conradi's alter-ego, Toni (Peter Simonischek). Toni doesn’t take things too seriously but he often goes further than that: creating scenarios, disguises and ruses to show up humour in the world that would go unnoticed if he didn’t find a way of finding its possible presence. At the beginning, we see him answering the door as one brother and then going back inside and speaking to the postie under another guise, half-dressed, wearing sunglasses and eating a banana. He tells the delivery man he will have to defuse the package. Why the ruse? Why not? That can seem like a flippant answer but the film determines to say it isn’t a trivial one. Throughout, Toni wants to propose the world can be different from its demands and its expectations, and that the apparent meaningfulness of many aspects of it isn't meaningful at all; they are conventions at best; cant at worst. Toni can see that his daughter is overworked, unhappy and probably lonely, and we know too when he seems to be leaving Bucharest and returning to Germany. She stands on the balcony, waves goodbye and starts to sob. This is more than a father’s departure; it indicates an empty life that corporate culture cannot fill. 

   Why should it? This isn’t what it is there for, but it can exacerbate that loneliness by creating ambitious environments, pragmatic friendships and careful conversation. When earlier the oil boss who has hired her consultancy firm asks her to explain to the Romanians what her work happens to be, and she tells them it is about outsourcing, he doesn’t look happy and explains that outsourcing is just one of the options available. In this conversation, Ines has been euphemistic but the CEO is being duplicitous. Outsourcing means making Romanians unemployed, and the CEO proposes that outsourcing is but one of the options on the table even if Ines knows the point of her work is to take the flak for the redundancies. She accepts that she hadn’t made herself clear but obviously she has made herself too clear and must backtrack. 

     Her father looks on, well-aware his daughter has been humiliated and may wonder the next day whether she in turn must humiliate someone else. They are in a health spa and she walks out of an inept massage. A spa employee comes over and asks her if he can make amends, and she arranges another massage in half an hour, and orders, free, two glasses of champagne, two fresh orange juices and two club sandwiches. Toni thinks this is a bit much, but Ines says her company spends a fortune at the spa: she should expect the best. She never does get the massage: she has been called away to take the CEO’s wife shopping. From a certain perspective, this too is humiliating: her job isn’t to chaperone the wife; it is to advise on the modernisation of an oil firm. But what matters most is to know where one happens to be in the corporate pecking order. It might look to the people at the spa that she has humiliated them further as she takes off without the massage and leaves the champagne etc. But we know and her father well knows that this is further proof that his daughter isn’t her own woman. 

      Director Maren Ade says, “In movies, it’s often very boring to show the real job, but I thought for her I needed it to be precise and give it a lot of space. It’s not all she is, but it’s a very big part of her. In most films, you just have one scene of someone on the job and then you go into the private life.” (Criterion) But if we come away failing to understand the intricacies of consultancy work, this rests on the film containing Ines’s ambitions within the political milieu of expansionist corporate power. It is contained too by a father who wonders not only is she failing to be herself, but is also failing to look at the broader implications of what she does. In the second-half of the film, Ines and Toni leave Bucharest and look at an oil plant in the countryside. Toni goes up to a couple of workers, with one of them handling oil without gloves. Toni tells him this isn’t a good idea, clearly concerned for the worker’s safety. But this is taken by the site boss as a sign of negligence and the worker will be fired. Toni insists that this isn’t what he wants but the boss says the man knows the safety rules and hasn’t complied. He needs to go. He tries to get Ines to persuade the boss to keep him but Ines doesn’t see the point. “he can fire who he likes. The more he fires the less I have to fire.” This is corporate logic: when down-sizing why would you try and upsize by one out of moral decency? She is right and he is wrong but the viewer isn’t inclined quite to see it that way. Whether this shows the film's anti-corporate bias or that corporations have a habit of functioning based on self-interest that has little concern for the wider world, the film leaves for us to decide. 

   The film is less anti-corporate than pro-humour and sees in the corporate environment humourlessness. Milan Kundera has a great term for this, taken from Rabelais: the agelast. “Unless we understand the agelasts [the humourless] we cannot understand the comical. Their existence gives the comical its full dimension, shows it to be a wager, a risk-taking, reveals its dramatic essence.” (The Curtain) When Toni goes up to the oilworker he offers it as a joke: he puts his hand out well aware that a man with his hand covered in oil isn’t likely to offer it, but this light humour turns into the darkest of consequences as the man will be sacked. If Toni is the humorous one in the film it rests on almost everybody else too uneasy to laugh, too determined to hold on to their jobs, making small talk while feeling small. This becomes encompassing as other areas service the corporate world. When Ines shows contempt towards the spa assistant, her dad then asks her if she is at least a bit happy and Ines responds with a frown, as though she doesn’t comprehend the question - or he more importantly doesn’t understand the environment. She isn’t supposed to be happy. Where would the happiness come from when everybody is in a strict hierarchy, when nobody quite tells the truth, and where the work one does has a narrow logic. One that impacts enormously on the world but where the world’s encroachment upon it has to be minimised: when outside forces are no more than irritating obstacles? During Ines’ presentation, the CEO says that all this has to be verified legally and "we all know how difficult this will be regarding the unions.” After the meeting, she looks out the window and we get a point of view shot onto the street, and see some shanty houses. It looks like most of the area has been turned into offices just like the one where the meeting takes place, and we notice too that a high fence surrounds the shanty area. This seems less likely to be there to protect the locals’ privacy than to hide the dilapidated nature of the buildings.  

    While it is a shot from Ines’s perspective, this doesn’t mean she registers the scene. Nothing indicates that she has thought about the contrast between the new apartments all around and this pocket of poverty, but the film registers it, and thus so do we. “For me, it was always clear that it’s more a film about what globalization, capitalismdoes with private relationships much more than making a “political” film. It’s more interesting to raise questions, because I don’t feel in a position to “make a statement” with the film. It became too complicated.” (Interview) Instead, the political is contained by the humorous and the reflective, in scenes that are peripheral to the story (as in that moment Ines looks out the window) or contained by the comedic. When Toni decides he needs to evacuate his bowels while at the oil plant, he takes a short stroll into nature and, as he starts to pull his trousers down, a local calls to him. The man takes him to his home and shows Toni the toilet. If taking time out in nature indicates the primitive, the toilet at the house suggests the impoverished. It is gently humorous as Toni realises the toilet is just inside the front door, what amounts to the hallway, as he is left in peace to do his business. 

   Between corporate development and indigenous underdevelopment, Ade manages to find humour without arriving at insensitivity. “it was not that I wanted to do this political film …It’s more that I hope that it’s raising questions and throwing the ball back to the viewer, because I don’t have an answer. I was interested in this dynamic." (WomenandHollywood.com). While she might be resistant to political impositions, she is very good at comedic superimpositions, finding ways to make the humour bring out problems rather than angrily insisting on the injustices and hypocrisies the film shows. We know that the oil worker isn’t removed to protect his own health; he is sacked to protect the corporate reputation, and so Toni’s attempt to get the man to see how dangerous it is to work so flagrantly with oil becomes a very prompt damage limitation exercise by the company. There is no difference corporatively between the CEO’s insistence that outsourcing is one of the options available and the plant manager’s insistence that the employee has to go. While Ines tries to be honest, and Toni tries to be kind, corporate culture insists on being self-protective. Its purpose is damage limitation. Ade might insist that she hasn't made a political film, but it is hard not to see the politics involved in this environment.

   Toni functions as damage maximisation, someone who sees this as an environment ripe for comedic disruptiveness to counter the agelasts. Whether it is asking the CEO if his younger wife is his daughter, or using a fart cushion while his daughter is getting a lecture from a senior figure in the firm, Toni wishes to puncture corporate pomposity, as if proposing that if they all took themselves less seriously they might start taking the world they see as collateral damage to their ambitions more seriously. 

  While Toni Erdmann bases itself around corporate culture it seems quite different from films that have come before it: from documentaries like The CorporationEnronThe Smartest Guys in the RoomFood Inc. to fiction films including In the Company Of MenUp in The Air and Glengarry Glen Ross. Judith Williamson noted in her book Deadline at Dawn a wave of Single Working Women films of the eighties (Black WidowWorking GirlFatal Attraction), with women often presented as vulnerable or monstrous in an essentially male environment. Toni Erdmann might feel like it possesses elements of all of them, but it has a streak of absurdity all its own, no more evident than when Ines decides to have a birthday party where everybody gets naked, after failing to put her tight dress back on properly, and when her dad turns up at the party wearing a kukeri costume. It is about as antithetical to being undressed as you can get as he is ensconced in this enormous furry costume that he doesn’t know how to get out of without help, just as Ines couldn’t quite get into her dress on her own. 

  There is a lesson in there somewhere about cooperation rather than corporatisation, but we may wonder if at the end of the film Ines has quite learned it. She is no longer working for the consultancy firm Morrisons, but she has joined another, the rather more famous McKinsey’s. Laleh Khalili in an excellent essay in the London Review of Books says, “thanks to the hegemonic model McKinsey and other management consultants invented, these firms not only make and remake businesses and government in the image of their laissez-faire fantasies, but see homo economicus as the last word in modern selfhood.” The film ends on a family occasion (the grandmother’s funeral) but it seems Ines is still keen to make it in the corporate world. Will it require another visit from her father in her new role to make her wonder if the new job in Singapore is really worth it?

© Tony McKibbin

Tony McKibbin Tony McKibbin

Toni Erdmann

Toni Erdmann is emotionally about a father/daughter relationship, narratively about a young woman trying to succeed in her career, and politically about how Western companies increasingly encroach on other parts of the world. Ines's father wishes to spend a bit of quality time with his daughter during her birthday and takes off from Germany to Romania, where she is working for a consultancy firm: ostensibly she is there to make a report that objectively explains why modernising infrastructure in the oil industry is so important to Romanian companies, but more so that the heat can be taken off the firm who wants to lay off a lot of workers. They can claim this is based on the consultancy's analysis rather than their demand. Ines (Sandra Huller) will write the report because she wants to get on and while this means others lower down the scale will lose their jobs, Ines will become ever more successful.

The film's purpose is to balance the emotional, the trajective and the political, and does so not by treating them equally but by containing them all within a humorous absurdity that comes chiefly through father Winfried Conradi's alter-ego, Toni (Peter Simonischek). Toni doesn't take things too seriously but he often goes further than that: creating scenarios, disguises and ruses to show up humour in the world that would go unnoticed if he didn't find a way of finding its possible presence. At the beginning, we see him answering the door as one brother and then going back inside and speaking to the postie under another guise, half-dressed, wearing sunglasses and eating a banana. He tells the delivery man he will have to defuse the package. Why the ruse? Why not? That can seem like a flippant answer but the film determines to say it isn't a trivial one. Throughout, Toni wants to propose the world can be different from its demands and its expectations, and that the apparent meaningfulness of many aspects of it isn't meaningful at all; they are conventions at best; cant at worst. Toni can see that his daughter is overworked, unhappy and probably lonely, and we know too when he seems to be leaving Bucharest and returning to Germany. She stands on the balcony, waves goodbye and starts to sob. This is more than a father's departure; it indicates an empty life that corporate culture cannot fill.

Why should it? This isn't what it is there for, but it can exacerbate that loneliness by creating ambitious environments, pragmatic friendships and careful conversation. When earlier the oil boss who has hired her consultancy firm asks her to explain to the Romanians what her work happens to be, and she tells them it is about outsourcing, he doesn't look happy and explains that outsourcing is just one of the options available. In this conversation, Ines has been euphemistic but the CEO is being duplicitous. Outsourcing means making Romanians unemployed, and the CEO proposes that outsourcing is but one of the options on the table even if Ines knows the point of her work is to take the flak for the redundancies. She accepts that she hadn't made herself clear but obviously she has made herself too clear and must backtrack.

Her father looks on, well-aware his daughter has been humiliated and may wonder the next day whether she in turn must humiliate someone else. They are in a health spa and she walks out of an inept massage. A spa employee comes over and asks her if he can make amends, and she arranges another massage in half an hour, and orders, free, two glasses of champagne, two fresh orange juices and two club sandwiches. Toni thinks this is a bit much, but Ines says her company spends a fortune at the spa: she should expect the best. She never does get the massage: she has been called away to take the CEO's wife shopping. From a certain perspective, this too is humiliating: her job isn't to chaperone the wife; it is to advise on the modernisation of an oil firm. But what matters most is to know where one happens to be in the corporate pecking order. It might look to the people at the spa that she has humiliated them further as she takes off without the massage and leaves the champagne etc. But we know and her father well knows that this is further proof that his daughter isn't her own woman.

Director Maren Ade says, "In movies, it's often very boring to show the real job, but I thought for her I needed it to be precise and give it a lot of space. It's not all she is, but it's a very big part of her. In most films, you just have one scene of someone on the job and then you go into the private life." (Criterion) But if we come away failing to understand the intricacies of consultancy work, this rests on the film containing Ines's ambitions within the political milieu of expansionist corporate power. It is contained too by a father who wonders not only is she failing to be herself, but is also failing to look at the broader implications of what she does. In the second-half of the film, Ines and Toni leave Bucharest and look at an oil plant in the countryside. Toni goes up to a couple of workers, with one of them handling oil without gloves. Toni tells him this isn't a good idea, clearly concerned for the worker's safety. But this is taken by the site boss as a sign of negligence and the worker will be fired. Toni insists that this isn't what he wants but the boss says the man knows the safety rules and hasn't complied. He needs to go. He tries to get Ines to persuade the boss to keep him but Ines doesn't see the point. "he can fire who he likes. The more he fires the less I have to fire." This is corporate logic: when down-sizing why would you try and upsize by one out of moral decency? She is right and he is wrong but the viewer isn't inclined quite to see it that way. Whether this shows the film's anti-corporate bias or that corporations have a habit of functioning based on self-interest that has little concern for the wider world, the film leaves for us to decide.

The film is less anti-corporate than pro-humour and sees in the corporate environment humourlessness. Milan Kundera has a great term for this, taken from Rabelais: the agelast. "Unless we understand the agelasts [the humourless] we cannot understand the comical. Their existence gives the comical its full dimension, shows it to be a wager, a risk-taking, reveals its dramatic essence." (The Curtain) When Toni goes up to the oilworker he offers it as a joke: he puts his hand out well aware that a man with his hand covered in oil isn't likely to offer it, but this light humour turns into the darkest of consequences as the man will be sacked. If Toni is the humorous one in the film it rests on almost everybody else too uneasy to laugh, too determined to hold on to their jobs, making small talk while feeling small. This becomes encompassing as other areas service the corporate world. When Ines shows contempt towards the spa assistant, her dad then asks her if she is at least a bit happy and Ines responds with a frown, as though she doesn't comprehend the question - or he more importantly doesn't understand the environment. She isn't supposed to be happy. Where would the happiness come from when everybody is in a strict hierarchy, when nobody quite tells the truth, and where the work one does has a narrow logic. One that impacts enormously on the world but where the world's encroachment upon it has to be minimised: when outside forces are no more than irritating obstacles? During Ines' presentation, the CEO says that all this has to be verified legally and we all know how difficult this will be regarding the unions." After the meeting, she looks out the window and we get a point of view shot onto the street, and see some shanty houses. It looks like most of the area has been turned into offices just like the one where the meeting takes place, and we notice too that a high fence surrounds the shanty area. This seems less likely to be there to protect the locals' privacy than to hide the dilapidated nature of the buildings.

While it is a shot from Ines's perspective, this doesn't mean she registers the scene. Nothing indicates that she has thought about the contrast between the new apartments all around and this pocket of poverty, but the film registers it, and thus so do we. "For me, it was always clear that it's more a film about what globalization, capitalism, does with private relationships much more than making a "political" film. It's more interesting to raise questions, because I don't feel in a position to "make a statement" with the film. It became too complicated." (Interview) Instead, the political is contained by the humorous and the reflective, in scenes that are peripheral to the story (as in that moment Ines looks out the window) or contained by the comedic. When Toni decides he needs to evacuate his bowels while at the oil plant, he takes a short stroll into nature and, as he starts to pull his trousers down, a local calls to him. The man takes him to his home and shows Toni the toilet. If taking time out in nature indicates the primitive, the toilet at the house suggests the impoverished. It is gently humorous as Toni realises the toilet is just inside the front door, what amounts to the hallway, as he is left in peace to do his business.

Between corporate development and indigenous underdevelopment, Ade manages to find humour without arriving at insensitivity. "it was not that I wanted to do this political film ...It's more that I hope that it's raising questions and throwing the ball back to the viewer, because I don't have an answer. I was interested in this dynamic. (WomenandHollywood.com). While she might be resistant to political impositions, she is very good at comedic superimpositions, finding ways to make the humour bring out problems rather than angrily insisting on the injustices and hypocrisies the film shows. We know that the oil worker isn't removed to protect his own health; he is sacked to protect the corporate reputation, and so Toni's attempt to get the man to see how dangerous it is to work so flagrantly with oil becomes a very prompt damage limitation exercise by the company. There is no difference corporatively between the CEO's insistence that outsourcing is one of the options available and the plant manager's insistence that the employee has to go. While Ines tries to be honest, and Toni tries to be kind, corporate culture insists on being self-protective. Its purpose is damage limitation. Ade might insist that she hasn't made a political film, but it is hard not to see the politics involved in this environment.

Toni functions as damage maximisation, someone who sees this as an environment ripe for comedic disruptiveness to counter the agelasts. Whether it is asking the CEO if his younger wife is his daughter, or using a fart cushion while his daughter is getting a lecture from a senior figure in the firm, Toni wishes to puncture corporate pomposity, as if proposing that if they all took themselves less seriously they might start taking the world they see as collateral damage to their ambitions more seriously.

While Toni Erdmann bases itself around corporate culture it seems quite different from films that have come before it: from documentaries like The Corporation, Enron, The Smartest Guys in the Room, Food Inc. to fiction films including In the Company Of Men, Up in The Air and Glengarry Glen Ross. Judith Williamson noted in her book Deadline at Dawn a wave of Single Working Women films of the eighties (Black Widow, Working Girl, Fatal Attraction), with women often presented as vulnerable or monstrous in an essentially male environment. Toni Erdmann might feel like it possesses elements of all of them, but it has a streak of absurdity all its own, no more evident than when Ines decides to have a birthday party where everybody gets naked, after failing to put her tight dress back on properly, and when her dad turns up at the party wearing a kukeri costume. It is about as antithetical to being undressed as you can get as he is ensconced in this enormous furry costume that he doesn't know how to get out of without help, just as Ines couldn't quite get into her dress on her own.

There is a lesson in there somewhere about cooperation rather than corporatisation, but we may wonder if at the end of the film Ines has quite learned it. She is no longer working for the consultancy firm Morrisons, but she has joined another, the rather more famous McKinsey's. Laleh Khalili in an excellent essay in the London Review of Books says, "thanks to the hegemonic model McKinsey and other management consultants invented, these firms not only make and remake businesses and government in the image of their laissez-faire fantasies, but see homo economicus as the last word in modern selfhood." The film ends on a family occasion (the grandmother's funeral) but it seems Ines is still keen to make it in the corporate world. Will it require another visit from her father in her new role to make her wonder if the new job in Singapore is really worth it?


© Tony McKibbin