“Film is difficult to explain because it is easy to understand,” the French film historian Christian Metz once noted. This observation is all the more appropriate for those kinds of film which seemingly make the smallest demands on viewers, namely comedies. Indeed, if you have to explain a comedy, then the comedy did not work—and explaining it afterwards will not recover the missed experience. But what if a film appears to be a comedy (and therefore requires no explanation whatsoever), but would greatly benefit from further reflection? For me, Toni Erdmann is such a film—a comedy in disguise that tackles profound questions, ranging from generational differences to the role of women in the workplace, even the meaning of life.
When I first heard of Maren Ade’s film, soon after its Cannes premiere, it was because of the buzz a German comedy had stirred at a festival known to celebrate art cinema and international auteurs. A German comedy, most international critics would agree, is surely a contradiction in terms. While still the most popular genre at the German box office, crossing borders has always been a tough sell for films Germans consider amusing. What people find funny in Munich or Osnabrück rarely feels that way to folks in other countries. Yet here was Toni Erdmann, the talk of the town!
The question of what feels humorous to whom, where, and when has intrigued me ever since I first came across the films of Ernst Lubitsch and Billy Wilder, two Hollywood greats whose artistic sensibilities clearly draw on their German and Austrian roots. When the opportunity came to write on Toni Erdmann, I considered it a chance to probe more deeply into the paradoxes of (its) humor. Polling my friends, two different camps of opinion crystalized: on the one hand were the more mainstream-oriented who loved the daring jokes of Ade’s film; the cinefiles, especially those with affinities for the Berlin School, were more muted; most of them liked the film, but considered it too commercial and even a betrayal of the more “rigorous” formal experimentation that characterizes this group of filmmakers. A contrastive look at the film’s reception in the international and the German press quickly revealed a somewhat different schism: while the French and Anglo-American press mostly acknowledged that Toni Erdmann’s over-the-edge theatrics were a mere vehicle to probe existential questions that spared neither the viewer nor the two protagonists, German-language journalists mostly celebrated the surprise success of an uproarious yarn. Indeed, those voices from Germany who were more reserved about the film by and large conceded that the film was funny—but that that was it. For them, it made for an entertaining evening, period.
When I set out to work on Toni Erdmann, my interest was twofold: to understand the larger cultural parameters that determine these patterns of reception and appreciation; and to find a language that is analytical and probing while also respecting the film’s formal beauty and inner complexity. That it takes less time to read the completed book than watch the film is my way of showing my respect for Maren Ade’s masterpiece.
This guest post was written by GERD GEMÜNDEN, Sherman Fairchild Professor in the Humanities at Dartmouth College; Professor of Film and Media Studies; German Studies; and Comparative Literature. He is co-series editor of German Film Classics and the larger series Screen Cultures.