We all need a life coach like Toni Erdmann
Cinema is a great therapy. Thanks to movies, we can experience situations we would never encounter in real life. We inhabit parts of ourselves that are normally dormant; through that we raise our awareness. Films brings us catharsis and relief. According to Corey Atad, they allow us to depart into another universe for a brief period, allowing ourselves the space to consider our world, to process it and comes to terms with it.
A movie I recommend to anyone interested in family relationships (especially between father and daughter) and to people who love to laugh at the absurdity of the corporate world (who doesn’t?) is Toni Erdmann, a 2016 German-Austrian dramedy directed by Maren Ade.
The movie depicts a relationship between a divorced, lonely 60-something music teacher, Winfried and his daughter Ines, a serious businesswoman who works for a consultancy in Bucharest. Winfried travels to Romania to surprise his busy daughter, who has no time and headspace for her dad. Winfried, to get closer to his estranged daughter, created ways of sneaking into her life through inventing an alter ego and posing as her CEO’s life coach.
Many hilarious escapades follow, uncovering the absurdity of the corporate structures. It shows matrix we have built to perhaps feed our self-imposed obsessions, a world we have learnt to inhabit and play parts in it. In this world, Ines represents a pattern that we all have in common, putting on a mask, in Jungian vocabulary, a Persona. According to Jung, Persona is a social face an individual presents to the world; a kind of mask, designed on the one hand to make a definite impression upon others, and on the other to conceal the true nature of the individual.
Ines represents the serious world, clear rules, meetings, formalities, social and patriarchal order. Winfried wears a mask too. It is Toni Erdmann he invented that allows him to get closer to Ines.
Winfried’s attempts to get closer to his daughter reminded me of the attachment theory, only this time upside down. John Bowlby, a British psychiatrist and psychoanalyst researched the effects of separation between infants and their parents formulating famous attachment theory that concerns infant behaviour seeking proximity to an attachment figure in stressful situations.
Perhaps it is Winfried (retired, divorced and his dog just died) who now found himself in a stressful situation and seeks to form a tighter rapport with his daughter. But his attempts are unsuccessful and only lead to awkwardness between him and Ines. Eventually he leaves to come back as an eccentric Toni to try his luck bonding with his daughter once more. With Toni he brings playfulness, spontaneity and out-of-box thinking. He drags Ines into crazy situations when she first faces her fear of failing in front of her boss and clients, clinging on to her Persona. Later she lets her guard down or perhaps is tired of ‘battling’ with the crazy coach Toni. Eventually she goes with the flow and way beyond, channelling her inner child.
The movie Toni Erdmann won a lot of prizes, formal and informal. For instance, it has been acclaimed for the best naked scene. We can understand the nakedness as a symbol of what unite us all; we are all naked, i.e. equal in our need to be close (intimate) with each other.
In cinema and other mass media, we find a lot of examples of mother-daughter relationships. The brilliant Toni Erdmann for a change introduces a father-daughter relationship with unseen humour, humanity and tenderness. The movie comes with an existential notion of the meaning of life and many places we can try to look for it - is one of them succeeding in the business world or rather unpredictable and chaotic relationships?
Existentialists and often life itself teach us that life is absurd. Albert Camus, a Franco-Algerian philosopher and writer, understood that our lives are meaningless and will remain so. The good news is that this understanding is the first step to being fully alive. Perhaps that’s Toni’s understanding too, and that’s why we can watch his zest for life and his freedom of inventing his own rules. Through the bizarre situations he not only embraces but invents, we can observe his own questioning of the meaning of life.