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The Foreign-Language Oscar Needs a Shake-up

Comedies are not traditionally nominated for the category, which tends to make it a bit stodgy. This year, ‘Toni Erdmann’ is poised to change all that.

(Sony Pictures Classics)
(Sony Pictures Classics)

To my knowledge, Toni Erdmann is the only movie ever to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign-Language Film and also feature a scene in which a character sits on a whoopee cushion. This distinction is not as trivial as it might seem: If Toni Erdmann wins the Foreign-Language Oscar on February 26, as it is heavily favored to do, it will be the first comedy to win the award in years. Recently, the academy has had a tendency to award this statue to the most solemn, “serious” movie in the running, and this reached a nadir last year when it went, unjustly, to the dolorous Hungarian concentration-camp drama Son of Saul. If a movie as cross-culturally crowd pleasing as Toni Erdmann were to win, it would be just the kind of shake-up this stodgy category needs.

On paper, Toni Erdmann — the third feature from the 40-year-old German filmmaker Maren Ade — is a tough sell. It runs 162 minutes, and “nearly-three-hour German comedy” does not exactly scan as “international crowd-pleaser.” It’s also impossible to give a capsule summary of the film without it sounding like a bad sitcom or Manic Pixie Dream Dad: The Movie. Toni Erdmann tells the story of a successful but buttoned-up businesswoman whose life is disrupted when her oafish, retired, prank-loving father visits her and (often clad in a garish disguise complete with a stringy black wig and Austin Powers–grade false teeth) tries to get her to lighten up and live in the moment. But this film could not be any less of a cliché, thanks to Ade’s singular sensibility and the peculiarly barbed tone of her humor, along with unforgettable performances from Sandra Hüller and Peter Simonischek. These characters are so endearingly bizarre, so warmly wrought, so thoroughly full of shriek-inducing surprises that, by the end, Ade elevates Toni Erdmann to something unexpectedly universal, and to an honor that usually goes to more “serious” movies: English-speaking audiences’ consensus pick for the year’s best foreign film.

Toni Erdmann is so critically beloved that the instances in which it has failed to win awards have become miniature scandals. After the film was unexpectedly snubbed at Cannes, Entertainment Weekly’s headline read, “Cannes Film Festival: Palme d’Or awards to I, Daniel Blake over Toni Erdmann.” Wrote the critic Amy Taubin, “It was disheartening — no, it was completely fucked up — that the [Cannes] competition jury awarded no prize to Toni Erdmann, which was by far the most popular film in the competition and which did the near-impossible by uniting entertainment-oriented and art-oriented viewers.” Toni Erdmann earned a Golden Globe nomination in the Foreign-Language category, though it lost to Paul Verhoeven’s controversial rape-revenge film Elle — a tonally erratic movie whose sole virtue is an excellent performance from Isabelle Huppert. (The greatest boon to Ade’s chance for an Oscar is that Elle did not even make it to the academy’s Foreign-Language pre-nomination short list, although Huppert scored a nomination for Best Actress.) Aside from these slights, though, Toni Erdmann spent the end of 2016 gobbling up prestigious honors. It swept all the major categories at the European Film Awards, and it was named the best film of the year according to critics’ polls in such high-brow publications as Sight & Sound, Cahiers du cinéma, and Film Comment.

There’s definitely some hyperbole in all this praise. Toni Erdmann is not quite perfect — the middle section drags, and it’s easy to pick out scenes that could have been cut to make its imposing run time a little more palatable. But unlike others, I’m not bothered by the breathlessness of the reviews — particularly the English-language ones. I think they stem from the fact that, as Taubin suggests, critics see Toni Erdmann as a movie that has the potential to change, however slightly, the way American audiences think about foreign films. They don’t have to be vegetables that you choke down out of sheer duty; they can also be dessert.

In recent years, unless you count Roberto Benigni’s 1999 Oscars acceptance speech, the best-foreign-language film categories at English-language awards shows have not exactly been fertile grounds for comedy. The Oscars began giving out a foreign-language film award in 1956 (for eight years prior they’d given an “honorary award” to one foreign film, without a selection of five nominees). The early years of the category coincided with American audiences’ sudden interest in high-profile foreign auteurs, and the first few winners largely bear that out: In the first decade of the category, Federico Fellini and then Ingmar Bergman each won it twice in a row (for La Strada, The Nights of Cabiria, The Virgin Spring, and Through a Glass Darkly, in that order). But in recent years, and especially as the figure of the foreign auteur has lost its influence in the American imagination, the rule seems to be that the grimmest, most soul-crushing movie usually walks away with the trophy. In 2016, the Golden Globe and the Oscar for Best Foreign-Language Film both went to the aforementioned Son of Saul, László Nemes’s almost unwatchably bleak Auschwitz drama; before that the Oscar went to the understated Polish nun drama Ida, and prior to that, both awards went to Paolo Sorrentino’s decidedly (some might even say derivatively) Felliniesque The Great Beauty. In 2013, Michael Haneke won both the Oscar and the Golden Globe for his austere end-of-life love story Amour (which itself was the second right-to-die-themed drama to win in less than a decade, along with The Sea Inside in 2005); a year prior, the Golden Globe and the Oscar went to Asghar Farhadi’s excellent Iranian divorce drama A Separation.

“Part of the problem with comedy in the category is that comedy is difficult to translate in the first place, particularly for American tastes,” says American University film professor Jeff Middents, who has written extensively on the Foreign-Language Oscar. (He is also a former teacher of mine.) “One year, in [my] Mexican Cinema [course], I showed the students one of the biggest, most popular comedies ever done by the biggest Latin American movie star, Cantinflas — and only one person laughed, because he was Chilean and spoke Spanish well enough to really get the smart linguistic comedy that was being developed.”

But there’s another reason comedies rarely crop up in the category: the received wisdom that serious movies are inherently more “important” or worthy of accolades than comedies. “Part of it is also due to the nominating process,” Middents says. “Remember that each country nominates one and only one film. Often, the film selected goes very serious because it is also seen as representative of that country. So to begin with, few comedies are [selected] to make it into the long list each year.”

The problem is often linguistic: Comedy lives and dies by the subtleties of language, and those nuances often can be communicated only by the most skilled translators. When you think about it that way, it’s easy to understand why the only purely, inarguably comic film to ever win the Oscar for Best Foreign-Language Film is Jacques Tati’s Mon Oncle (1958). (Fellini’s Amarcord and Luis Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie also won, but those are a little more debatable, genrewise, than Mon Oncle.) Like the other Tati films in which he stars as the befuddled M. Hulot, Mon Oncle contains almost no dialogue. Its humor is purely (and masterfully) visual, calling upon the tradition of silent film; Mon Oncle has more in common with Chaplin than the French New Wave that was contemporaneously emerging in Tati’s home country. The M. Hulot films are all send-ups of the homogeneity of modernization and the occasional absurdity of technology. His genius was in his ability to communicate these universal sentiments in a comic sensibility that transcended language. You don’t need to laugh at an appliance going rogue on Tati in Mon Oncle’s famous kitchen scene. Nothing is lost in the translation.

Maren Ade relies on comic dialogue much more than Tati did, but there are things about Toni Erdmann that remind me of Mon Oncle. Both tell stories of lumbering, slightly melancholy clowns ambling through rapidly gentrifying worlds that in some sense have already left them behind. Ines works as a consultant at a global corporation; part of her job is to fire people and rebrand the action with the faceless euphemism “outsourcing.” Winfried, on the other hand, is aware of and sympathetic to the injustices and class differences to which Ines, seeking success in a ruthless field, has willingly blinded herself. As with Tati, there’s a poignant aftertaste of nostalgia to Ade’s madcap humor.

There’s also an iconic simplicity to their visual senses of humor, which is crucial to both filmmakers’ crossover appeal. The biggest laughs in Toni Erdmann come from its sight gags — whether it’s Winfried popping his false teeth in during a stodgy work reception, or our hero showing up at a party in a ridiculous, 8-foot-tall Romanian monster costume. That’s one reason to root for it at the Oscars: Somebody should walk the red carpet in that monster suit.

Toni Erdmann has some stiff competition: The Australian romance Tanna is notable for being the first movie shot on the South Pacific island of Vanuatu; the Danish film Land of Mine concerns a tried-and-true Foreign Language Oscar topic, World War II. The only other movie in the crop that has some comic elements is also probably the longest shot to win: Sweden’s A Man Called Ove. The contender with the greatest chance for an upset, though, is Farhadi’s brilliantly tense drama The Salesman, although the biggest strike against it is that it’s quite similar in tone (and slightly inferior) to the Iranian director’s A Separation, which won the award in 2012.

Aside from being a deserving choice, a win for Toni Erdmann would represent an invigorating change of pace for the Best Foreign-Language category and its future. For the movie to have its Roberto Benigni moment at the Oscars would be to communicate to an American audience — probably more likely to schedule a bathroom break during this category than pay attention to it — that “foreign film” represents a crop of movies much more diverse and relatable than the stereotypical hard-to-watch, black-and-white fare about unspeakable atrocities. Plenty of the movies that fit that trope are still brilliant, and there are also moments of Toni Erdmann that are sad enough to challenge its characterization as a comedy. (The ending made me cry both times I saw it.) But the crossover success of Maren Ade’s movie is a welcome challenge to the idea that comedy “doesn’t translate,” and evidence that there is such a thing as cross-cultural humor. There’s nothing like all the world laughing together at a set of false teeth or a well-deployed whoopee cushion to remind us of our common humanity.