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Toni Erdmann

2016, Maren Ade, with Peter Simonischek and Sandra Hüller. 2h42.

Premise: In order to see his daughter, a busy strategy consultant, an estranged father with clownish tendencies insinuates himself into her life by pretending to be a life coach — with the help of a cheap suit, a shaggy wig and a set of crooked, fake teeth.

Comments: A sweet, deeper-than-it-seems movie about life, work, and father-daughter relationships. Surprisingly long (2h42) but never boring. I really recommend it.

Interpretation and spoilers below.

My first feeling was that it was a clash of “shamans” — the archetype of the person who reveals what was hidden beneath appearances. For Winfried / Toni, hints of this were provided since the start (the school choir disguised as living deads), and up until the end (the kukir costume). I assumed that Ines was similar: as a consultant, her job is to show management teams what they couldn’t see by themselves. But the movie is only tangentially interested in what she reveals: contrary to Up in the Air, for example, where the personal consequences of a “downsizing” plan are presented in detail. In second analysis, she is less of a shaman, and more of a courtier: as her assistant explains to the visiting father, they will only say what the client wants to hear. But Winfried’s values are stronger.

If the father is indeed a shaman, what he reveals to her is not magic, but the simple fact that she has forgotten to be a person. “Are you even human?” he asks her after she abandoned him in a deserted mall for hours; he whiled the time away by watching a father teach his daughter how to ice skate, probably just like he did with her years before. His strategy from then on will be to push her to the brink, to break the armor she has built around her heart, as tightly as the sharp suits and (too) tight dresses she braces herself in.

Another level of interpretation is an interrogation about what is important in life. She pursues her career above everything else — her family, even her love (as a weird sex scene implies). He is more interested in connecting emotionally with people — even if he has to use strange strategies for this: even the poor delivery man at the beginning of the movie, who probably expected to stay only a few seconds, and ends up wondering what exactly is in the box he’s holding. Making people laugh is a way of checking that every moment is made worthwhile — a question that he ponders all the time, as his final lines indicate.

The final layer is about family. In appearance, no one could be different than the shaggy, clownish father, and his high-achieving, ultra-serious daughter. Yet they both wear costumes and makeup, and hide who they are within. The difference is the father knows when to remove his fake teeth. But as the final scene implies, the filiation is there.