Toni Erdmann or how masochism will get you far nowadays

Praises and awards are splashing on Toni Erdmann, film by Maren Ade. It got every important European Film Academy award and is now being rumored as a sure foreign Oscar winner. After seeing it, my first thought was about just two possibilities: we’re doomed or in the few years everybody will be totally embarrassed, asking themselves what strange case of Emperor’s new clothes they had

Every successful story must catch the spirit of the time. The characters and their actions or inactions create a mirror and only if the audience recognizes itself, the story will be meaningful. If the story symbolizes the world for enough people, it will get very popular. Some of them deal with our human essence and are timeless, while other can’t exist outside their time. For instance: after 11. September 2001 Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code caught the feeling of paranoia and conspiracies perfectly.

Does Toni Erdmann belong to the first or the second category?

Film starts with deeply embarrassing encounter between the protagonist, Winfried, and the postman. Winfried is pretending to be two persons, the main difference between them cheap plastic teeth he is putting on and off, establishing himself as a practical joker. You know the kind and their limits: sooner or later the farting pillow will appear.

When his dog dies Winfried goes after his daughter Ines. She works for international company and is totally German serious. Her father invents a character called Toni Erdmann and starts to embarrass her mercilessly until she dutifully internalizes her father’s wish and starts to embarrass herself, from terrible singing to launching a naked party, etc. As expected, in the end she symbolically becomes her father, putting on his false teeth.

Toni Erdmann has very stereotypically German view upon hierarchy and the elders, very paternalistic and old timely and somehow it combines this with very Christian fatalism:

  1. You can’t be different. If your parent are annoying borderline sociopaths, you too are fated to become one.
  2. You can’t better them. Even if you imitate them totally, to the last rotten tooth, they are still more efficient. Ines was sent to Rumania to lay off workers. The only worker we see getting sacked is the victim of her father’s practical joking.
  3. You can’t grow up. Winfried is still a child and in works as a teacher. In the scene with children we see he’s equal to them. They’re all masked as zombies (!) and he is no different. His daughter must infantilize herself down to her naked body for the hierarchy to be respected and his father remaining higher: if he’s mentally seven, she must be newborn.

The corporations love this kind of thinking. When Ines is trying to do her job as an adult, they’re degrading and humiliating her. When she follows her father’s example and starts humiliating herself, she gets the job she wanted. Why a lot of reviews concentrate on how anti corporate this film is, is beyond my comprehension.

Masochism and the blind obedience will get you far. Film is billed as German comedy, an obvious oxymoron. But this cult of masochistic obedience does sits comfortably in a big chair slowly moving to the political right all over western world.

Viewers recognize our own times in Toni Erdmann, the returning of the old, and ah, the irony: They praise how fresh the film is – 19th century fresh, to be exact.

Spoiler: yes, the farting pillow does appear – but Winfried puts it under his own ass! Even practical jokers are masochistic nowadays.

Almost three hours of this film feels like being in a cage with people who ran out of Xanax long ago. I could felt the depression creeping on me but I fought it bravely until checking the reviews and opinions on the social media agreeing the film accurately pictures our world. Still, you will have to force those plastic false teeth on me.

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