Generationskonflikte: The Commodification of Humor in Toni Erdmann
In Toni Erdmann (dir. Maren Ade, 2016), Winfried, the estranged father of corporate consultant Ines, reunites with his daughter at her birthday party. He comes directly from a performance at the school where he teaches music; pale ghoulish makeup still covering his face. Winfried and Ines feign familiarity as they stiffly greet each other. Instead of breaking the ice, his costume is met with his daughter’s bewilderment and a question: “Am I supposed to get it?” For Winfried, this misunderstanding confirms the rift between the two of them. When Ines steps out from the party, Winfried follows her and jokes that he has hired a replacement-daughter since she is always traveling. Without a hint of perceivable irony, Ines reacts positively and finds relief in the idea of no longer having to call him on his birthday. Winfried asks if her response was a joke, she says it was. Both Ines’s and Winfried’s attempts at jest fail to amuse. Their respective misrecognition is not the result of a clumsy attempt at humor but is symptomatic of major generational differences between father and daughter.
The disparity between Winfried’s and Ines’s world-views can be identified in how they understand and employ comedy. Winfried still believes in the preposterous. For him, concepts such as a “replacement-daughter” are so far-fetched that he considers them objectively humorous. Winfried believes relationships to each be unique and irreplaceable. His life’s work has been about tangible human connection–influencing students, creating communion through music, or providing strangers with humor. On the other hand, the idea of commodifying a familial relationship is not an alien concept to Ines. It is considered a logical business model in her neoliberal work environment. The lack of tonal distinction in her joke legitimizes the concept and displaces the humor onto her father instead. When Winfried accompanies Ines to one of her business events he jokingly mentions the “replacement daughter” to her client–the CEO of a German oil company. The client finds the idea fascinating and, once again, does not consider it ludicrous. Winfried recognizes Ines’s assimilation into the logic of her peers.
Ines must always bear an armored exterior. To remain vigilant in her environment, she must constantly perform and manipulate–usually at the cost of others. Her humor is her method of attack and it is rendered profitable by assisting her in corporate survival. Her humor does not come in the form of jokes, but rather in humoring her misogynistic business partners. Humor is necessarily engendered in all of Ines’s social situations in the form of role-play; sincerity would be demoralizing. Like Winfried, she is constantly putting on costumes.
In his efforts to reconnect with Ines, Winfried shows up at her workplace in disguise. Armed with a wig, false teeth, an ill-fitting suit, and a whoopie cushion, Winfried weasels his way into the parties and offices and invitations to parties. He introduces himself as “consultant and coach” and name-drops important industry leaders as supposed clients. To mitigate embarrassment, Ines pretends to not recognize him as he schmoozes with her co-workers and clients. Although he is met with skepticism, his facade proves effective in acquiring business cards, connections, and invitations to parties. Winfried, posing as Toni, has appropriated the costume-logic of Ines’s world in an attempt to make her laugh. Winfried has also embodied Ines’s biggest fear–presenting as an imposter. To both of their surprise, the hokey “Toni” disguise is convincing and Ines takes him along to many of her meetings, introducing him as Toni.
Ines’s decision to involve her father in her professional proceedings stems from her desire to prove to him the seriousness of her work: this is not a masquerade ball he can crash. Winfried has never had interaction with such global bureaucratic powers and his generational inclination–he is a member of the “68er” hippie cohort—`leads him to more or less write them off. Ines brings Winfried to meet the manager of an oil well who takes them to inspect working conditions. At the well, Winfried offers a piece of safety advice to one of the workers who wasn’t wearing gloves; the manager who accompanied them immediately fires the worker. Winfried tries to persuade the manager that he was only making a joke, to no avail. Winfried realizes that in Ines’s world, humor–as he knows it–has serious economic repercussions. Before leaving, Winfried goes to the bathroom and stumbles upon a man and his teenage son living in poverty. He offers them some cash and tells them: “don’t lose the humor.” Stifling a smirk, Ines observes her father’s naive attempts to assuage the damage he has caused. She later tells him that her “modernization” strategy–automation–would eventually result in the loss of most of these jobs anyway.
For the first time, Ines and Winfried truly see each other’s nature--both disappointed in what is revealed. Their estrangement becomes contextualized by their irreconcilable perspectives on global progress. Winfried sarcastically repeats something he used to say with sincerity: “you’re doing everything just great.” Ines begins to cry. In her attempts at humbling her father, Ines is forced to reflect on the morality of her professional choices. Similarly, as Winfried attempts to reconnect with his daughter he discovers the unsentimental conditions of the modern world where everything is commodified–people, connections, and emotions. The misrecognition between father and daughter elucidates the reason for their mutual alienation. As Ian Burkitt writes, “the emotional injuries of misrecognition is not just a matter of being looked down on but, as Holmes and McKenzie (2018) point out, being denied the status of a full partner in interaction and prevented from participating in social life as a peer” (Burkitt).
It is only when Ines opens up to that which her career has forced her to suppress–emotional sincerity–that her armor clatters to the floor. She can see herself again, as painful as that might be. However, this requires compromise. As a gesture of gratitude at an Easter celebration, Winfried–posing as Toni–suggests that Ines sing a song for the guests. At a loss, Ines capitulates as her father sits down at the piano. Assuming his role as music teacher, Winfried begins to play “The Greatest Love of All” by Whitney Houston. Ines’s soft singing evolves into a dramatic outpouring as she croons about the things she is conditioned to repress: “If I fail, if I succeed, at least I’ll live as I believe. Learning to love yourself, it is the greatest love of all.” She finishes the song and briskly leaves the apartment. Although difficult for Ines to endure, the song brings them together. Winfried breaks through her shell.
In the film’s final sequence, both return home to Germany to attend Ines’s grandmother’s funeral. As the rest of the family rummages through the grandmother’s belongings, Ines and Winfried share a moment on the back porch. Ines pulls out a set of false teeth from her father’s shirt pocket and puts them in her mouth. He laughs. She goes on to put on one of her grandmother’s hats. She laughs. He tells her to wait while he gets the camera. Ines and Winfried have recognizes each other and have momentarily traded places. Ines, the fool. Winfried, the commodifier. The film leaves us to question: does late-capitalism leave room for feeling?
Burkitt I (2019) Alienation and emotion: social relations and estrangement in contemporary capitalism. Emotions and Society. 1(1): 51-66.