*Toni Erdmann*, misunderstood masterpiece (full of spoilers)

by on February 5, 2017 at 5:10 pm in Film | Permalink

Since no major English-language critic has made my major novel observation, can a flat-out wrong claim be considered a spoiler?  I say the optimal time to read this post is in the middle of the movie, not before, not after.  I’ll put the rest of under the fold…

First, Toni Erdmann is one of the most stimulating and multi-faceted movies I’ve seen in years, “utterly unique and wholly indefinable.”  My non-spoiler plot summary is that an elite female German management consultant is called in to advise on outsourcing to Bucharest, and during the course of the movie she discovers she cannot get away from her father so easily.

Most of the core action unfolds after the woman’s father comes to visit her in Bucharest, and subjects her to an escalating series of escapades, mostly with co-workers.  At least on the surface, the woman is efficient and worldly but emotionally stunted.  Her father is rude and genuine and comic and self-destructive with his blundering interventions, unable to stop offending people, grabbing the attention, and repeatedly undercutting his daughter’s self-confidence.  Everything has to be about him.  As the movie progresses, however, the daughter learns she and her father are not so different after all.

What is this movie so good at?

Humor and comic set pieces.  Staging a scene and subverting your expectations.  Creating its own world, spread across a large and sprawling canvas (it’s almost three hours long).  Expat life.  The new German nationalism.  Showing the multiple ways that women are condescended to or debased in the corporate world.  Toadying.  Rebelling by joining the establishment.  The relationship between Germany and the economically colonized parts of Eastern Europe.  The new principles of sex (and food).  The emotionally unrewarding nature of contemporary cosmopolitan life, but also the limits of rootedness.  And of course father-daughter dynamics and their persistence.

One rewarding way to watch the film is simply to track how many ways the German protagonist — in terms of her groveling, her rhetoric, and finally her complete nudity — is reduced to the status of her obsequious Romanian assistant.  That’s factor price equalization with a vengeance.

OK, so what is the catch and major spoiler?  I say this film uses a Fight Club-like trick, though unlike Hollywood it doesn’t feel the need to tell its viewers outright.

Most of the father’s Bucharest visit to his daughter never actually takes place (some of it probably does, though we cannot quite be sure).  The father leaves Bucharest, and when the daughter supposedly runs into him again at a city bar, in his disguise, while she is talking about him to her friends, he isn’t really there.  The coincidence of the encounter is too extreme and no attempt is made to explain it.  And, after the conversation, when he leaves and climbs into the largest limousine you ever have seen (he’s a music teacher back home, not a CEO), that too is a sign this isn’t really happening.  The unreality of his continuing visit also explains the succeeding odd medley of coincidences, and that she simply doesn’t tell him to cut it out and stop ruining her career.  He is haunting her imagination, and no simple physical remedy will do.

If you do not understand this point, much of the movie will seem obnoxious and overstated, or even nonsensical.  In fact a few reviewers have made this complaint (some reviews here); if your critic is employing the word “preposterous,” beware!

In my reading of the film, the handcuffs sequence is the key scene.  The father comes along and handcuffs himself to the daughter, without having a key to open them up.  That’s how she feels about her station in life.  Eventually they find someone to pick the lock, but if you’re wondering why she tolerates this behavior, and immediately afterwards takes him to a bunch of work meetings and interviews…well, think Fight Club.  She truly does carry him with her, no matter where she goes.

Also, for further clues, listen to the lyrics of the Whitney Houston song she sings at the Romanian party.

The now-famous nude party scene reflects how the daughter feels exposed and naked out in her job, much as she feels she never can escape her father.  The appearance of the “furry creature” at the party then shows that her father — as a figment — will keep on coming back, in whatever extreme manifestations might be required.

Recall in the opening scene how the father is hiring/installing an imaginary daughter?  She is mirroring this same behavior — also in a destructive way — by installing an imaginary father.  The movie’s title, Toni Erdmann, of course refers to the father’s (supposed) alter ego, not to the father himself; that should be another clue.

People, no one gets this movie.  It does have very positive reviews, but the American and British critics are missing the boat.

Toni-Erdmann

1 E Charles February 5, 2017 at 5:32 pm

Wow, I just watched this last night and didn’t see the Fight Club connection but your explanation makes a lot sense.

2 King Cynic February 5, 2017 at 5:36 pm

“People, no one gets this movie.”

Something I’ve learned about the writing business is that when large fractions of your readers don’t get your book, it’s your fault as the writer for not expressing yourself clearly, never the readers’ fault. I think this generalizes to movies straightforwardly enough. If no one gets this movie, then the movie is a failure.

3 whatever February 5, 2017 at 5:43 pm

I can’t figure out what you mean.

4 Mark Thorson February 5, 2017 at 6:10 pm

That’s because you’re not giving his comment a Straussian reading.

5 Ryan Murphy February 5, 2017 at 7:21 pm

This is entirely correct.

6 Melmoth February 6, 2017 at 4:12 am

And architecture. Ugly and mediocre buildings remain ugly and mediocre even after all the clever historic and political references in their design have been explained.

7 Uribe February 5, 2017 at 6:24 pm

But maybe it’s meant to be surrealism or impressionism. By your interpretation the movie must be naturalistic and therefore the preposterous can’t be really taking place in the fictional universe. But it is a fictional universe after all. You don’t watch a Bunuel film and think “this must not really be happening because it is too much of a coincidence”.

That said, I haven’t seen the film and will keep your hypothesis in mind when I do.

8 jim jones February 5, 2017 at 7:08 pm

I preferred “Moana”, maybe I am just a little girl at heart

9 anonymous February 5, 2017 at 7:12 pm

I did not and probably will not watch this movie (it sounds a little too amoral for me). And I would not be surprised if most reviewers missed the point of any given movie. And Tyler’s takes on movies are often very good. That being said, contrary to the statement in paragraph 8 from the end, there are several Hollywood movies that proudly and artistically don’t tell the viewer outright what the point is, some of them great. Spoilers with respect to several beloved old movies follow: Frank Capra understood that the Jimmy Stewart character in the Wonderful Life movie was a profoundly selfish shallow person (for example, what kind or person yells at their kid for practicing the piano too loudly??? – that is deep into villain territory, just as deep as cruelty to innocent animals – and they are all innocent) who, through no special effort of his own, had randomly helped people out earlier in his deeply selfish life. It is a fantastically dark movie, which explains to us that even the most selfish of us may, if we are lucky in a fairy tale way, be better than we think. The point is, we are probably ***not*** better than we think because life is rarely a fairy tale. Hence the darkness. In the Searchers, John Ford’s most famous movie, every major character does something very selfish *and* very bad, with two major exceptions only – John Wayne (who may be selfish and bad but does not mix the two) and the semi-idiot fiance. It is not an epic movie it is an existential disaster teaching us that people are selfish and life is hard and it is easy to care deeply about people who do not care about us and by the way in any given situation there is not likely to be more than one person who is brave (remember the closing shot?) (Auden wrote a poem about that a decade earlier, I would quote accurately , but why bother – we were not good and we were not brave was the point of his poem). The greatest Hollywood film ever starred WC Fields as an intolerable husband with an intolerable wife and a violent daughter. The greatest film that New York City, the greatest city of our times, ever produced has a similar theme. that being said, my favorite Fawlty Towers episode featured Priscilla being super nice to Manuel and Manuel being super nice to Sybil and Basil being nice to every body and even Sybil being nice to everybody but Basil, and, resentful as I may be at all the hours I cluelessly spent watching Gilligans Island in my youth, there were several episodes where everybody showed deep charity to each other, and I still remember those episodes with the fondness of the wine connoisseur who once – and only once – was blessed to share a bottle of DuCru BeauCaillou with good friends (well on the Gilligans Island episode there was of course the stereotypically cold hearted guest star, but that was harmless error on the part of the director (whose grandson – not the director’s, the guest star’s, is now a talented winemaker in Oregon – the guest star in real life became, three decades later, a beloved and, after his death, deeply lamented paterfamilias.)) The director has almost a hundred grandchildren. Life goes on. Cor ad for loquitur.

10 anonymous February 5, 2017 at 7:18 pm

And “even Sybil being nice to everybody but Basil” …. Sad! I have friends with husbands and wives like that! Thinking of them reminds me why the Epistle to the Philippians moves me so much …..

11 anonymous February 5, 2017 at 7:44 pm

6 lines from the end “Cat People”, the Jacques Tourneur version – cor ad cor loquitur et unus cordurum cor leonis est, sunt lacrimae rerum valde! nonne vides = erras = Populus Sion, ecce Dominos veniet ad salvandas gentes et auditam faciet Domius gloriam vocis suae in laetitia cordis vestri (Heart speaks to heart and [in Cat People] one of the hearts is the heart of a savage lion, thus there are tears deep down in the the nature of things == erras == up to a point {Lord Copper} == People of Sion, Behold the Lord shall come to save the nations, and the Lord shall make the glory of His voice to be heard, in the joy of your heart.) Babette’s Feast is another good movie, the American equivalent, nowhere near as good but with Peter Falk playing Babette, is the Serpentine movie, I forget its name. Auden was a good poet, if you think I have wasted your time read a few lines of him at his best.

12 Ray Lopez February 6, 2017 at 3:12 pm

On a different note, the epistle of the Philippines moves me so much I want to live there (at least during the dry season, about four months of the year).

13 anonymous February 5, 2017 at 7:46 pm

The Ocean? It’s over the Ocean to Scranton Pennsylvania????

14 anonymous February 5, 2017 at 7:47 pm

sometimes

15 anonymous February 5, 2017 at 7:57 pm

typical internet rude comments welcome as long as they are from Gilligans Island experts!!! Serpentine Shelly Serpentine !!!

16 Khalil Hegarty February 5, 2017 at 8:07 pm

I like Tyler’s explanation. I enjoyed this film immensely. I agree that the limousine didn’t make sense.

To throw a question at Tyler: does this mean that when the daughter leaves the room following the karaoke scene and Toni is having a conversation with the matriarch of the Romanian household the conversation is imagined? Or is the daughter having the conversation as Toni?

There is the possibility that she was reasonably content for Toni to ruin her job in Romania. She was clearly unhappy.

But It’s also worth keeping in mind that it’s a comedy; do events have to be consistent or make sense? Suspension of disbelief, perhaps?

17 John February 5, 2017 at 9:32 pm

You’re right, that scene doesn’t work if Tyler’s framework is accurate. This post must be some sort of rhetorical experiment.

18 Tim February 6, 2017 at 8:53 am

I like Tyler’s reading, too, but there is also the scene where the costume head is removed. Not sure how it fits in, either, other than the daughter imagining that everyone can see through Toni?

19 ex-PFC Wintergreen February 5, 2017 at 11:36 pm

I’m not completely convinced but it’s an interesting reading and of course there’s no single “correct” interpretation. I would like to know how you interpret the egg-painting party — did she just go on her own? Why? Why the “family is complicated” scene on the staircase?

I read this movie as “at what margin playfulness?” She would benefit from more of it, he would benefit from more seriousness and intimacy. Taken to an extreme, either becomes a vice that prevents intimacy and happiness. In the final scene, they both realize this, if only temporarily.

And the brunch was one of the funniest set pieces I’ve ever seen. Few directors could pull off something so funny while balancing her dramatic throughout.

20 CMOT February 5, 2017 at 11:58 pm

“Counterprogramming is the practice of offering television programs to attract an audience from another television station airing a major event. It is also referred when programmers offer something different from the rival’s program as an alternative, to increase the audience size.”

21 Peter Akuleyev February 6, 2017 at 6:44 am

No German reviewer that I’ve read agrees with Tyler’s interpretation. Nor do the actors, from the interviews I’ce read. The limousine is actually easy to explain – the father rented it, hoping to convince his daughter and friends to join him. It doesn’t cost much in Bucharest. If you teally need an explanation. Basically Tyler is taking the film too literally. Europeans are used to more “heightened reality” and surrealism.

I put Tyler’s theory in the same bucket as the theory that Walter White died in the Volvo and everything in the final episode starting with the keys falling from the visor is a dream. interesting interpretation but not supported by authorial intent or the internal story.

22 lbc February 6, 2017 at 9:18 am

this is a really great movie
the best German movie since “the lives of others”

23 Ray Lopez February 6, 2017 at 10:57 am

Won’t see the movie, probably will never see it, too busy making my own (porn?) movie. But seems to me people read into life things that are there or not depending on their IQ: smart people like TC (and me) see things, like in a chess game, further than most, while low IQ people (that would be you, msgkings) don’t, then complain they don’t see it. Well duh!

Bonus trivia: did you notice Lady Gaga in last night’s magnificent Super Bowl Li (I don’t watch NFL games anymore except this one, but it was well worth watching) gave coded messages to her audience? For example, she said “I’m just here to make you happy” which was clearly an apology for why she was not making any political statements. And very brave for L. Gaga to be on such a high platform, with platform shoes and stiletto heels. If you fall off that stage you’re not making a comeback like the Patriots! Lady G has no fear of heights, that’s for sure!

24 Nick February 6, 2017 at 3:37 pm

Why did you think it was a coincidence when she met Toni in the bar? Why not planned by him? Why did every other character in the film interact with Toni if he wasn’t there? Why were there scenes with him interacting with others without her present?

Lovely film, but this theory is simply wrong.

25 Alyssa Gillon February 6, 2017 at 3:57 pm

Though it’s really interesting, I don’t buy the “Fight Club” reading of this film. Too many other characters see and react to Toni. FC is really really careful to make people only talk to one of the guys at a time – they don’t overlap so the logic is solid when you get the “big reveal” at the end. The big fuzzy creature at the party gets lots of reactions, too. Toni had way too much independent action and plot points to be a figment of her imagination. She walked into that party of people (that only Toni knows) on her own? Sang on her own? It seems like a stretch with too many holes. If the “FC trick” is the main pull that makes the movie fascinating, then I have to wonder if Ines is really nutty and imagining everyone and their interactions with Toni, not just her father as Toni. I definitely agree that there were beautiful and interesting elements to the film, the relationship between father and daughter, etc, but not enough to justify 3 hours for me (I thought it was boring) I saw it as a subtly told humor/love/family ties > corporate success story. I agree that the symbolism of “he is always with her” is heavy but I question whether the film wants us to understand Toni as imaginary.

Toni’s in touch with the secretary. He can find out where Ines is and her schedule, explaining the coincidental pop-ups. The limo hint doesn’t work for me as evidence that Toni’s imaginary. It’s consistent with Toni’s character, ability to talk himself into things with bizarre humor and an assumptive attitude.

I would call Ines emotionally controlled, not stunted. I felt that she gets what’s up and that’s why she allows Toni to hang around, and why she does the nakee party at the end, and puts on the hat and teeth at the funeral. She’s controlled on the surface and doesn’t give into passions, but inside, I think the gears are turning. I didn’t see Toni as “blundering” as much as offering humanity and comic relief to contrast his daughter. She only gets invited for the drink because her father is interesting/a character. He often helps her along, breaks that awkward moment with her boss with the fart. She makes her own mistakes and misspeaks, upsets her boss. I don’t see anyone telling her “You’ve got to get rid of your dad.” Toni propels her to quit the miserable job and move on. He’s smart, and the things he does, like the handcuff scene do represent where she’s at in life. I think he did that on purpose 😉 not because he’s a symbolic part of Ines’s inner workings.

This perspective did give me a lot to think about, though, so I don’t want to sound like I’m blasting it. If it was the film’s intention, it’s too subtle and inconsistent for me – and let me in on it a little sooner! Because wow was I bored.

26 Millian February 6, 2017 at 5:12 pm

I always assume the third act is a dream sequence, which is usually wrong but makes for interesting interpretations of classics like Vertigo and Tristan und Isolde.

27 Jim Buck February 8, 2017 at 5:53 am

Interesting take on the movie; and one that dovetails neatly into my own reading of it— which is that it is a re-use of the Prince Hal–Falstaff relationship. The point being that intergenerational repudiation is impossible. Stripped down, the daughter shows herself as being educated in the ways of her father. Toni himself has something of his nazi mother about him, invading his daughter’s life in the way he does. All very Hegelian and German. More tragic than funny–in my opinion—certainly not boring.

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