Toni Erdmann: the outburst of the absurd

João Paulo Ayub



The hell of the living is not something that will be: if there is one, it is what is already here, the hell where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the hell and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and learning: seek and be able to recognize who and what, in the midst of the hell, are not hell, then make them endure, give them space.

Italo Calvino, The invisible cities, 1972


20161010-toni-erdmannToni Erdmann is a German film released in 2016, it was written and directed by Maren Ade. In outline, Maren tells the story of a father, Winfried (Peter Simonischek), who seeks reconnection with his daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller). When Winfried reencounters his thirtysomething daughter, a go-getter, workaholic woman, comes to the foreground not only a family drama, with its torn ties, but also the very meaning of life for a whole generation made up of ambitious young people, overwhelmed by the demands of their careers. Winfried’s impersonation of a comical-surreal character called ‘Toni Erdmann’ was the ruse used by the film’s director in order to trigger the outburst of the absurd under Ines’s automatized footsteps.

Toni Erdmann is a clown who meets one urgency from our time: it is necessary to bet on the de-flattening of the subject in the face of the market’s imperatives. That would be the approximate contour, or the widened dimension of a problem that goes on gradually killing those inside, outside, or on the border of the “system”. The attempt to rescue a life submersed in the sea of individual goals turns out to also be part of Winfried’s staged drama (mostly under the guise of Toni Erdmann in the film), who only later on the story let himself engage in surprising-encounter with his daughter Ines.

The task isn’t that hard, since Ines, thirtysomething, has deployed her best qualities and energies to succeed in her entrepreneurial project. The company, that is to say, is a personal one, it’s herself. Better yet, her life has been reduced to a company-form. Her relations, affections, wishes, desires, body, time, sex, and drugs, are at the service of a project whose logic is the maximization of her career.  There’s no ‘why’ or ‘what for’ in such mode of production whose goal is the matching of each piece… such as an automaton, it is the gear itself the reason for the working of the pulleys…

Ines is an outstanding member of a group of greedy young professionals who render consulting services for a multinational company in Bucharest, Romania. The company’s employees don’t take in anything from the place, culturally speaking. There isn’t any cultural exchange, and everybody is blindly seeking the optimal functioning of the totalizing system of financial gains enhancement. The absolute neutralization in relation to the environment, to the Romanian’s cultural singularities, greases the concrete machine that must keep up with the speed of the abstract fluxes of capital around the world, at any rate. Employment, unemployment, and the lives of the subjects dependent on these huge capitalist machines don’t disturb the individual movement of foreigners/entrepreneurs who hardly know the language or the country where they are.

Still bringing in his face the remaining of paint, and the badly erased features of one his comical characters, Winfried asks himself, next to his ex-wife — Ines’s mother —, where would they have got it wrong in raising their child… while Ines, unresponsive to a birthday’s party prepared for her, spends the whole “free” time on the phone, updating her networking and promoting her career. The critical moment, when father and daughter, side by side, experience an extremely precarious interaction, as if they were two strangers, using strange languages, foreshadow the scenes in which Winfried impersonates Toni Erdmann: the father sets out to rescue his daughter.

The mismatch coming out of the extended time in the reencounter is a plus for the nonsense comicality of the “mask” (wig and fake teeth, Winfried/Erdmann uses to stage the approximation). Erdmann isn’t a common clown. The laughter that he is trying to elicit has the aim of making the world strange, opening a breach in the plastered landscape, and slow down the insane running of the hellish machinery which has swallowed his daughter.

The character that Winfried impersonates shows up unexpectedly behind Ines’s back, in her business meetings, confraternization gatherings, convention centers. Something tells us that his bizarre gestures towards his daughter can only reach their full goal of a re-awakening to life if the whole universe of protocols, strategies, and personal interests is also implied in that movement. Erdmann wants to retrieve in his daughter a creative potency that the British psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott saw as the greatest richness an individual could ever achieve. That richness is the ability to play with/in the world, which results in the very setting up of the world.


It’s necessary to understand that by taking risk among the cream of advanced capitalism, Erdmann doesn’t intend simply to stir his distance daughter. The outburst of the absurd/comical in Ines’s fast-paced and impoverished environment works as a kind of “puncture” through which a way out seems likely — starting by the implosion of that identity closed in itself, typical of the entrepreneurial ethos.

To a certain extent, the father presents an experience of life in which all the relation with the world is problematized from its critical element, that is, from the implementation of a subjectively valid sense, committed to a certain way of being free of the determinants of this machine of deadly production. Winnicott thought that the development of that creative skill (in opposition to the mere reactive one) is synonymous with vitality. Such vitality conditions the resistance to the external forces that reduce everybody’s lives to a mere adaptation, at the same time that reality itself acquires a status of a true conquest. Just so, life is worthwhile…

Ines’s group, unable to experiment the singular richness of each place, each encounter, is very far away from that game referred to by Winnicott. Such as psychoanalysis itself, for that author, it is only possible to have that experience through a special opening to the creative universe: “psychoanalysis was designed as a highly- specialized form of playing, a service of communion with oneself and with the others”[1]. Put differently, the relation between analyst and patient must allow for the foundation of a privileged “locus”, where the experience of playing becomes an existential resource for the patient.

As the absurd is inserted in a world cut out by instrumental rationalities, Toni Erdmann sets an alternative up to this mode of being calculated which is typical of the neoliberal culture. Something that Ines seems to experiment when she welcomes, naked, her guests for the birthday party in her apartment. In that moment, even if it was for only a few seconds, the machine fails, halt, and gives place to a spontaneous gesture — for the first time in the film, daughter and father hug each other, he hidden inside an immense Bulgarian costume to drive out evil spirits.

Mostly likely Winfried’s daughter isn’t going to be able to dive back in that universe of infinite possibilities… and she’s going to keep wasting her best qualities, her vitality, providing blood for the market’s ghoulish machine…, but we, if it is still interesting to live a life “worthy of being lived” (in Winnicott’s terms), cannot ignore the sense of urgency that that enormous and strange individual, with fake teeth, tried to elicit from us.

[1] – D. W. Winnicott, Playing and Reality

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