In Defence Of The Toni Erdmann Remake

Jordan Crosbie /
Feb 16, 2017 / Film & TV

I, like most of the cine-literate community spent the months succeeding Cannes herded along in anticipation for Toni Erdmann.

It wasn’t long before the film became the cinematic equivalent of a sacred cow. A wonderfully beguiling scared cow that the community could provide as hard evidence in contradiction that cinema was dead, soon it became almost impossible to drown out the noise of its unanimous, unrivalled praise. Yet still, I, like most of the cine-literate community loved Toni Erdmann without condition and those rare, few Erdmann detractors that exist have been denied the luxury of sounding authentically cynical. Against the backdrop of prestige their comments have been reduced to a begrudging broth of hot-takes.

I’m writing this essay painfully self-aware that I have contributed to a problem that I’m trying to take the moral high ground on. It would probably be easy to point out the logical sinkholes in this think piece. Concluding in blaming my lack of critical apparatus for allowing me to champion superficial soundbites before I had even seen the film. Without stripping me of my agency that is, to a degree, what happened. But the pivotal role the unabated culture of anticipation plays in forming our opinion should not be understated or denied. Toni Erdmann was the Gold standard of cinema before the general populous had even seen it, we were subject to a constant streams of praise: for Maren Ade’s direction, for Sandra Hüller and Peter Simonischek’s performances, for the sheer audacity it had to be a 3 hour comedy. Toni Erdmann could do no wrong. But this subsequent rash of disapproval for a U.S remake spotlights the unspoken elitism of the haut monde. An elitism in film that often disguises itself as well rounded criticism, existing just beyond the surface, an insidious veneer that shapes the way people both approach and appreciate cinema.

Whilst I could continue to play peripheral Devil’s advocate, we’re all aware that the U.S scarcely has a pedigree reputation of successful foreign remakes. These films are often culturally left by the wayside, produced within an inch of their life and buried in a grave of their own exposition.  But shrouded amongst the blear the U.S has managed to tenaciously sustain a volley of critically lauded foreign remakes, often striking back with equal avidity as their originals. The Ring, The Departed, 12 Monkeys, True Lies and Victor/Victoria are all examples of critically and commercially successful remakes that haven’t chaffed between their cultural limitations. But when the discussion of a Toni Erdmann remake enters the cultural conversation, it’s already marked as the albatross hanging from the original’s neck.

Once we’re able to pull back from the larger cultural picture, and engage, sans bias, with the components that will become the central tenants to the film, there’s a lot to be animated about. I’m not going to patronize you with a Jack Nicholson career retrospect, his reputation as an instinctual actor is at this point almost a priori. However, it’s probably worth noting his work in About Schmidt that traces similar thematic lines back to Toni Erdmann. A role for which he was suitably praised for his ability to mine fertile emotional gold from the overlapping territories of comedy and drama. If anything, this is Nicholson’s role to lose.

Kristen Wiig seems to have become another focal point of apprehension amongst the remake’s detractors. Imagined as the Trojan horse of the project, a gift once opened that’ll bring about the fall of Erdmann one fart gag at a time. Whilst this form of Apatowian shit-sparring is ubiquitous amongst American comedy we ought to have faith in Wiig’s ability to restrain her comedic impulses. Her performance in Nasty Baby, the brattier cousin of Haneke’s Cache, was the perfect toxic spit back in film that, on the surface, looks like the playmate of Baumbach’s more recent work. Wiig’s ability to turn in a seemingly relaxed, natural performance gave her occasional off the cuff venom genuine weight, and the film an off kilter bite. Whilst the film’s last minute hairpin turn in narrative direction throws it off course Wiig continued to evolve with the material, even whilst the film stagnated. Most importantly both Wiig and Ade understand comedy on an instinctual level.  Its uses as a device and the way it can hold people together, even when they ought to be drifting apart made for the emotion foundations that made Bridesmaids so revolutionary.

Nicholson and Wiig are currently the only two people attached to the project, crucially, we are missing a director. A singular vision from someone who can peer through the stained glass comedy of the original, to see the shadows of drama that hide behind. Or, someone who can discover new emotional vantage point, an opportunity for a new director flex creative muscles before they atrophy within the arthouse scene; to embrace the baton Ade is passing along. Amy Seimetz, Lesli Linka Glatter, Leysle Headland or Kelly Fremon Craig have proven their relentless eye for character, detail, place and scenario throughout their bodies of respective work, all of them possessing distinctive riffs which they could bring to the currently perfected Erdmann formula.

In its final moments, Toni Erdmann mourns the real moments in life that pass us by while we wait for them. Opportunities missed whilst we mourn opportunities lost. Perhaps we should take this remake at face, rather than sentimental value. We’re so ready to bury it, only to dig it back up on its release…just to bury it again – but how are we to critique a film when we’ve announced it dead on arrival? The original was a surprise, a gift given to us in cupped hands. Let us allow ourselves the gift of being surprised by cinema, remove ourselves from an omnipresent culture of anticipation and go in and appreciate the art we’re seeing in that very moment, instead of letting them pass us by.
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Words by Jordan Crosbie

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