Keith reported on Toni Erdmann as the closing film of the Leeds International Film Festival (LIFF) back in November 2016. The film had wowed Cannes in May 2016 and there was general dismay that it was not recognised by the Festival Jury despite almost universal acclaim. After the all too common long delay before a UK release (well done Soda for acquiring the title), Toni Erdmann has become one of the most hyped/heavily promoted arthouse releases I can remember for a long time. Most of the promotion has come on social media from people who have seen the film at festivals or on release in other territories. It is also significant that it is the first foreign language film to get a release on more than a handful of screens in the UK for two months (since the Dardennes’ Unknown Girl). I’m bored now with repeating the shaming fact that the UK exhibition sector offers no foreign language releases in December/January and that this has been the case for several years.
In these circumstances, I think it’s necessary to revisit the film and Keith’s festival report. Two quick points first. The film is 162 minutes but to me felt like 100 minutes. Second, it is at times very funny (raucous laugh-out-loud funny) and I have to agree with all those comments I read beforehand. I agree with a lot of what Keith said about the film as well, though I think we read some scenes differently.
I’ve seen reviews that describe Toni Erdmann as a ‘screwball comedy’ and others that compare it to Renoir’s La Règle du jeu (The Rules of the Game) and I can see that both descriptions have some merit. The film’s length gives writer-director Maren Ade the opportunity to move from one genre to another and to shift the tone of different sequences. The result is that most audiences will find something they really like in the film, but also that they might be frustrated by other parts. If you have managed to avoid reading about the film so far, let me briefly outline the narrative without spoiling it. The film’s title is the name of the alter ego adopted by Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek), a sixty-something living on his own in suburban Germany (although I guess it could be Austria). He seems to be a music teacher, probably retired, with an aged dog and an aged mother and ex-wife both living nearby. His daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller) is a management consultant in her mid 30s, working too hard and juggling projects in Bucharest and Shanghai. Events convince Winfried to make a surprise visit to Bucharest where he attempts to challenge Ines to reflect on her life. His strategy involves donning a wig and clip-on dentures and posing as ‘Toni Erdmann’, a ‘life coach’, who introduces himself to Ines’ colleagues and friends – with predictable, and sometimes unpredictable, results. There are several amazing set pieces that depend on script, direction and wonderful performances by the two leads.
Many reviewers have commented on the father-daughter relationship and this certainly runs throughout the narrative and carries an emotional heft. However, my own interest and enjoyment was mostly in the different perspectives and strategies the two characters adopt in their engagement with the work and social environment that Ines inhabits in Bucharest. I’ve had only a limited experience of working on international projects but my viewing companion worked as an executive for an oil industry services company and we both agreed that Maren Ade had captured the tone of business presentations and small talk at receptions/parties perfectly. Ines works for a consultancy company called ‘Morrison’. There are several real consultancy companies called Morrison/Morison some with a global reach but it was odd seeing the film in Bradford, home of the major UK supermarket chain ‘Morrisons’. Ines is a consultant who has to devise a strategy for a team with Romanian and German members to present to a multinational which is attempting to ‘modernise’ the Romanian oil industry (one of the oldest in the world) and this inevitably will mean reducing the workforce with all the subsequent social damage that will cause. This is an environment in which Germans and Romanians use their own language to talk to their compatriots but English to talk to each other in public. Nobody ever says what they really mean in public discourse and this provides the basis for comedy (and satire) – and tragedy. Ines is prepared to play the game, Winfried/Toni finds it more difficult. The contrast between the glamorous world of global capitalism and the reality for the mass of Romania’s population is well captured in the dialogue (the observation that the new shopping malls are far too expensive for Romanians) and by the camera when Winfried looks down from Ines’ cold and minimalist designer apartment to see in the streets below a working-class household living behind a high fence. The sexism inherent in the ex-pat world of consultants is another well-observed element in Maren Ade’s script. Overall the treatment of modern global capitalism reminded me of Christian Petzold’s Yella (Germany 2007). Sandra Hüller is herself from East Germany – like the character played by Nina Hoss in Yella.
The final third of the film shifts into what might be seen as surrealism. At one point I did think of Buñuel. But I still think the situation is believable given the circumstances. One of the funniest scenes involves Ines trying to get into and then out of a particularly tight-fitting dress. I’m trying to resist pointing out that such a scene is much more likely in a film written and directed by a woman – as is the unusual sex scene earlier in the film. I don’t want to give away what happens in the final scenes because the shifts in tone are surprising and revealing.
But is this like Renoir? I suppose it is in the sense that there is certainly a ‘game’ and that the film reveals the inequalities that exist in the globalised world of Romanian ‘modernity’. We get to know just about enough of the lives of a small group of characters to realise that none are totally ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Having said that, the multinational boss Ines has to please is very worrying. Some audiences appear to find it difficult to identify with either Ines or Winfried but I think we get to know both well enough to see them as ‘humanised’ characters. What at first might seem like a comedy of embarrassment eventually becomes a humanist drama. Winfried/Toni is, as Catherine Wheatley in Sight and Sound (March 2017) points out, a child of the 1960s. For those of us similarly inclined he’s ideologically and emotionally ‘correct’ – but not necessarily entitled to force/coerce/persuade Ines to feel the same. The film’s ending is worth thinking about. It’s a terrific film and I’d really like to see Maren Ade’s two previous films.
Although this is a film produced in Flanders, all the action is actually set in Romania – and although the film presents itself like a documentary, it is actually a carefully-scripted observational study of a real family (the 2.35:1 ‘Scope presentation also suggests a fiction film). Writer-director Teodora Ana Mihai is herself a Romanian migrant who left the country as a child, growing up in Belgium and then California before film school in New York and a return to Belgium to work in the film industry. This surprising film is her second production and has already won four international prizes, including best documentary feature at Karlovy Vary and the Toronto Hot Docs festival. New prizes are being picked up all the time.
Georgiana is a teenager as Christmas approaches in the Romanian city where she lives with her six siblings in an overcrowded flat. Although she has an older brother who is 18, it appears that Georgiana is the de facto head of household as her single parent mother is in Italy earning the money the family needs as a cook for an elderly Italian family. Georgiana is expected to look after everybody, organising shopping, cooking and cleaning – and trying to achieve the more usual teenage goals of academic success, having fun and possibly finding a boyfriend. Soon it is her fifteenth birthday and the film’s title begins to make sense when we realise that it will have been eight months of struggle when mother finally returns at the height of summer.
If this brief outline of the film’s plot suggests that this is going to be some form of ‘grim’ social realism, the reality is quite different. Somehow, Mihai manages to avoid jazzing up her story with dramatic incidents but still to make the everyday lives of the family members interesting. I confess that after the first twenty minutes or so – and feeling very tired – I thought that I might close my eyes and just let the film drift by. But that didn’t happen. Instead I gradually became more engaged with the characters and their daily struggles and minor triumphs. There are some moments of difficulty, e.g. when somebody tells Georgiana that the children should be in an orphanage, but these are faced and talked through with Mum on the phone or through a shaky video link on the computer. As the sun comes out in the spring, the children get to spend more time outside and Georgiana has more opportunity to talk to her schoolfriends about exams – and to catch the eyes of boys at the swimming pool.
The great strength of the film is seemingly down to three factors. The director clearly has a great rapport with these wonderful kids, the camerawork by Joachim Philippe is unobtrusive (and the sound is effective) and the seamless editing never draws attention to itself. This is the opposite of ciné vérité in which filmmakers provoke their subjects. Instead the camera seemingly just records the events as they unfold. The children are remarkably ‘ordinary’ – they don’t seem to play to the camera, but they do play and grouch like most children. This is a real family as explained in the director’s statement on the film’s excellent website:
. . . after many months of searching and numerous interviews, I finally met the Halmacs. Their story particularly touched me; fortunately, they agreed to share their everyday life with me and with the broader public. The Halmac kids literally claimed my empathy. Every single one of them is a real ‘character’, with a fascinating and well-defined personality that I just wanted to get to know better.
Having said that, I was of course also confronted with a crucial question: who was the main character in this story? Who was holding this family together in the mother´s absence? The answer came quite naturally: Georgiana, who was about to turn 15 when we started filming, had obviously taken over the parental responsibilities. She was the new point of reference for the rest of the siblings, despite her age.
As I started following Georgiana, I discovered an extremely strong, uninhibited teenager who accepted her new ‘head-of-the-family’ role with humility, without considering herself a victim. But she did possess the realisation that she — like the rest of her siblings — should have the right to a normal, more protected childhood.
I felt privileged to be allowed into their lives to tell their story of courage and resilience. After spending so much time together we all became like family, which gave this film its intimacy and, I believe, also its strength. Getting to know the Halmacs truly enriched my life.
At the end of the film when mother emerged from the airport to meet her children I had a tear in my eye. Waiting for August is already on screens in LA, San Francisco and New York and it is due to open in Belgium. I hope a UK distributor picks it up. At 88 minutes it’s a gem. Don’t miss it if you get a chance to see it.