This type of ending, an outgrowth of the midcentury European art film — featured in Roberto Rossellini’s Stromboli (1950), Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries (1957), François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959) — has become the pièce de résistance of many modern films, whether in the New Romanian Cinema, American “Independent” cinema, or in the work of the Dardenne Brothers, who have a patent on their own type of finale — call it the “Dardenne Zone,” where a character is paralyzed by his or her previous actions. In sum, the main character(s) goes through his or her journey on screen and a final reflection occurs. They are alone, or if there is another character present, they still dominate the final frames. Then there is a quick cut to black, as abrupt as shutting our eyes. Words are, finally, meaningless. “This is a no filmed theater zone,” these endings say, with the obligatory nod to Robert Bresson. There is no musical accompaniment, only background sounds — a stark departure from Hollywood’s long crane shots, the most common sign-off of yesteryear, which used a blaring orchestra to wipe out real sound. This anti-epiphany moment has developed into cinema’s way of anthropomorphizing Rilke’s final line from the poem “Archaic Torso of Apollo”: “You must change your life.” A line making the reader’s conclusion, and by extension the audience’s exit, as open ended as possible, thrusting life’s questions back onto them. In that instantaneous end, we are subjectively kicked back out into the world and assured that, yes, it is a cruel world. There will be no long romantic crane shots to mislead us.
In making such a potent work, how does director Maren Ade get from beginning to end? Kent Jones said of John Cassavetes that he “ma[d]e people themselves into his mise-en-scène,” and Ade is squarely in this tradition. Shot with a not-too-shaky handheld camera, the film builds on her 2009 wonder Everyone Else, in terms of tone and psychology. There are no establishing shots, no sun, moon, or landscape insert. The father, Winfried Conradi, dominates the first hour or so, as he leaves Germany to visit Ines in Bucharest, where her firm has placed her. Then he supposedly leaves Bucharest, and the next 40 minutes belong to Ines, though Winfried keeps making appearances as his alter ego Toni Erdmann, arrayed in a shaggy wig and false teeth. As Toni, he prods his daughter — trying to lighten her up — at her home and work. The focus then returns to Winfried, then to both of them together on their long day together, beginning with a visit to the oil fields from which Ines’s firm is planning to outsource labor, eliminating hundreds of jobs.
The core of the film is a string of incidents on that aforementioned day, set in motion by Winfried handcuffing himself to Ines as a joke. The day proceeds with a run-in with a poor family who lives near the oil fields; a visit to a Romanian diplomat and her family, during which Winfried compels Ines to sing a full-throated rendition of “The Greatest Love of All”; and finally ends with a naked party at Ines’s apartment. The spontaneity of these latter two scenes is reminiscent of Cassavetes’s A Woman Under the Influence, especially the “Longhetti spaghetti” scene, in which a gaggle of construction men deliver competing renditions of arias to impress one woman. With all of these events spanning the real time of a few hours, Ade creates a playful spontaneity rarely seen in today’s cinema, which can take itself too seriously, not knowing that comedy is inherent to drama.
Toni Erdmann is slow going at first, deceptively so, since the first act of the film carefully seeds what will later flower. Ines’s character, for example, is gradually revealed to us. She is morose and plastic, but foremost a workaholic, who even on her short trips to Germany can’t get off her phone and even pretends she is on a call to avoid her father. Her two-dimensional character is shed, however, when halfway through the film she emasculates her co-worker during their tryst, making him masturbate on a dessert for her to devour. In her work and office romance, she asserts her power, demonstrating an addiction to the squalid corporate life. But the vacuity of Bucharest’s gaudy hotels — where stale, hobnobbing meetings occur — and Ines’s sterile apartment scream for an antidote. When her father gets her to sing, a glacial spirit partially melts in Ines.
It continues to thaw when, in preparing for a party for her co-workers at the new residence, Ines decides against tall heels just before the first guest arrives. The change in heels makes her change her dress, too. But when she has trouble squirming out of her too tight dress, she just leaves it off and suddenly announces to the guests who arrive one at a time that it is a naked party and they have to be nude to be there. The contempt she has for her life breaks into fast motion — maybe the veneer she dressed it with was always thin. It is in the contrast between the suits (dominating the sexes for the whole movie — even the father wears one) and the nudity at the end that Ade’s art bubbles over into something vital, with bodies as bodies striking the waxen artifice usually overlaying a film’s soul. Have we forgotten that nudity can be cause for giddiness? Ade joins Alexander Payne — whose 2004 Sideways features a great shot of a naked man’s swinging penis running up to Paul Giamatti’s car — in her ability to laugh at the human body, mainly men’s. This humor doesn’t dissipate the film’s socio-political bite. With the exception of Ines’s father, the film’s characters are the instruments of corporate oligarchy, undercutting the human spirit and bloating the ever-widening income disparity. They are almost all appetite and as close to soulless as the species gets, though this gets dramatized succinctly in about 10 minutes. Like any spectacular piece of art, Toni Erdmann has many levels, which brings us to one of the most prominent negative critiques of the film.
Richard Brody in The New Yorker appears to woefully project notions onto the film that square with a slapdash made-for-TV movie. He claims that the relationship between Ines and Winfried is “unconsidered” and that their “psychological reality” can't be brought out because “[Ade] doesn’t employ the panoply of devices, tracking shots or cranes or, for that matter, any effects — visual or sonic — that break the sense of reality captured on the fly.” But why would we want to break the sense of reality Ade creates? It is just this sense of reality, as in Cassavetes or the Dardenne Brothers, that behooves us to identify with the work. Any effects would diminish what is certainly Ade's triumph: namely, bringing us close enough to two people without the ramping up the expressionist machinery of camera movement. Bloviating talk of a director’s “vision” is usually reserved for the stylists of cinema, whose work is full of those aforementioned “devices.” But Ade’s achievement is to generate a soulfulness that most mumblecore films, similarly shot and often celebrated by Brody, fail to achieve.
So why does Toni Erdmann get the ending it does? Ade takes us through a number of steps before arriving there. Ines and Winfried are back in Berlin for Winfried’s mother’s funeral. During the reception at the dead woman’s house, the pair separates from the crowd and goes outside. First, the father talks somberly about life’s ephemeral moments — how to remember them and how to understand them as momentous in the present. Then Ines puts on her father’s fake teeth that he has used throughout the film, along with a hat from her dead grandmother’s wardrobe and mugs for him. Is she becoming more like him? He goes to get his camera to preserve one of those moments he just talked about, though it’s already futile, because as soon as he leaves, the moment is over. Shouldn’t this man, for whom “Be Here Now” is a wholesale mantra and ethic, know better? Yet, his daughter doesn’t live near him — who could fault him for wanting a memento?
In this off-kilter morality tale, the ending, as constructed, is more airy than the Dardenne Zone, where the character’s choice is limited. Soon after he leaves, Ines walks out of the patio into a bit of nature behind the house. She makes a few faces and looks back toward the house, then she takes out the teeth, removes the hat, wipes her face, and does what is probably the hardest thing for an actor to do: solitarily betray her consciousness to the audience with face and body. We have learned, in the final scenes, that Ines has moved to Singapore and to another consulting company, but in her last appearance onscreen she seems to wordlessly say, “My father will die, and someday I will die. How will the rest of my life go? What stance will I take?” Ines has made changes in her career — perhaps even changes in her relationship with her father. But those are not the changes Rilke had in mind.