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Dear, don't be weird

By taking her characters seriously, My Dad Toni Erdmann avoids the comedy genre's most obvious solutions.


One of my favorite replica exchanges on film (and generally, really) is in Sam Mendes' American Beauty (1999) when main character Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) is with wife Carolyn (Anette Bening) at a job party. Here, she introduces him to a real estate competitor (who is also her lover, but that's not the point here), at which Burnham points out that they have actually met before. Consequently, when the real estate agent pretends to remember this, Burnham replies with a reassuring smile: "It's all right, I wouldn't have remembered either."

Fish on land. Although the films are not necessarily very similar, there are several elements in this scene that resonate in the cinematic German comedy My father Toni Erdmann, written and directed by Maren Ade. Here we meet the relatively tough career hunter Ines Conradi (Sandra Hüller), who works with outsourcing for an international company in Bucharest, and who receives an unexpected visit from his father from Germany. The semi-retired elementary school piano teacher and chronic skater Winfried (Peter Simonischek) has taken an impulse ride in part because his dog has died, and in part because he suspects that her daughter is not doing well.

Ines steps his father into his tight schedule by taking him to a work-related gathering where the unlucky man is like a fish on land – and with this, some of the moments that create the most obvious associations of American Beauty. However, the similarities are found not only in the situational comics, but also in some of the themes, as both films depict a form of a revolt against roles one is set to play in social life.

Alter ego. I My father Toni Erdmann This happens primarily when Dad Winfried extends his stay in the Romanian capital and takes on the role of "businessman and coach" Toni Erdmann – complete with long-haired wig and outstanding loose teeth. This is how he becomes part of his daughter's professional and social environment, without her choosing to reveal him (for several reasons, some more obvious than others).

With such a premise, it might be just as natural to compare the film to the classic comedy Tootsie (1982), in which Dustin Hoffman plays an actress who pretends to be a woman for a role – and who learns about this and how women are treated. But where a more obvious course of action for a comedy would have been if Erdmann became a kind of guru that everyone admires, Maren Ade chooses a more realistic approach, where the characters – like us in the hall – look at him as a funny and charming kid.

Nevertheless, the father's alter ego serves the function of the historical fool, who reveals and ridicules some of the mechanisms of this international business world. Here, too, it is to a great extent about how women are treated in an ever-male-dominated world, such as when Ines takes Erdmann to a difficult client meeting because the presence of an older, male (and mostly silent!) Colleague will give more weight and respect. The film consistently clarifies some gendered codes in this environment, such as when male colleagues talk to each other during a rally to take the trip further out on the town – and not least when Ines sees himself forced to show the wife of a potential American client around Bucurestis shopping centers.

Rank Powered. With a playing time of up to two hours and 42 minutes builds My father Toni Erdmann slowly get up. Then it is also a far more character driven movie than one usually sees in the generally more plot-oriented comedy genre. One could even argue that it is more a drama comedy or a comedic drama than a pure comedy, as the generally low-pitched film invokes regular humming rather than loud, louder salves. And although it contains some joyfully embarrassing moments, Maren Ade is sympathetic enough to delight in her characters to succumb to the petty pillow humor that has become almost ubiquitous in the wake of the TV series The Office og Curb Your Enthusiasm.

Class Society. Beyond the feminist aspect, the film paints a not very flattering picture of today's multinational business world, without portraying the people who populate it as particularly unsympathetic. In a liberating little polemic way, new as well as traditional class divisions are made clear, where not least Romania as a recording location seems to be chosen for completely different reasons than when Norwegian film productions are added to the same country.

However, the crux of the action is the slow but not always secure approach between father and daughter, an emphasis that also confirms that the film has at least one foot in the drama genre. The performance is striking and partly subtle, but here the film follows just as much a relatively traditional dramaturgy, where it is fairly early suspected that the two are not so different anyway. And where an important, albeit unforeseen, meeting point is that they share the same melancholy.

The film consistently clarifies some gendered codes in this environment, for example when male colleagues talk in between during a gathering to take the trip further out on the town.

Family i focus. So, one can question the reason why films with career women as protagonists almost always focus on these characters' (often deficient) relationships with family. Ade's film does not make a huge point out of the fact that the thirty-one-year-old Ines is childless, but the backdrop of divorced parents in another country seems to be not a completely insignificant aspect of her apparent loneliness. How often do we not see male movie characters dedicate themselves to their work without the lack of contact with family, or simply lack of family, becoming a theme? At least more often than is the case with their feminine opposites, I dare say, and suspect that this announces a not exactly progressive view of what women really should prioritize.

On the other hand, the vast majority of movies are about something personal, rather than just about the character's professional challenges. And I do not necessarily mean that this is an important objection to My father Toni Erdmann, as the father-daughter relationship here is the starting point for two finely tuned and nuanced character portrayals that are undeniably among the film's foremost strengths. In addition, the loneliness of the protagonist is put as much in the context of the male-dominated environment in which she is, and which the film thus criticizes.

"Dear, don't be weird," responds Lester Burnham's wife to his aforementioned reply American Beauty. But sometimes you should certainly allow yourself to do just that. On one level, acting My Daddy Toni Erdmann to find oneself in the strange traits that are embarrassed by their loved ones, as Ines eventually steps out of her expected role – and her clothes, in what is possibly an ironic greeting to German Freikörperkultur. And with melancholy and loneliness as other central themes, it's only natural that it all culminates in The Cure's beautiful and monumentally sad Plainsong on the scrolling text.

My father Toni Erdmann their Norwegian cinema premiere 25. December.

Aleksander Huser
Aleksander Huser
Huser is a regular film critic in Ny Tid.

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