Un-American Erdmann

Film Review |By Christian Tesfaye - Exclusive to Fortune

The European Film Festival, an annual event presented by the European Union (EU) has officially begun. The first film to be screened was the German movie Toni Erdmann, which was also nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2017 Academy Awards. But it is a long movie, subtitled and has a theme that is tough to crack, which could hurt Ethiopians’ delicate movie watching sensibilities. But Christian Tesfaye promises it is a journey worth taking, awarding a rare 10 out of 10 stars.

The Europeans are better filmmakers than the Americans, mainly the French, but their movies are not to everyone’s liking. They will never succeed at making the type of film that snatches billions of dollars at the box office if their European subtleties are to hold. Unlike the United States, who also have their good moments (take the 1940s golden age), the Europeans are more contemplative, anxious and worldly. They are also less excitable and not as much preoccupied with selling and the concept of cinema as mere entertainment.

Likewise, the most sophisticated audiences are those that admire European cinema. That way lies a broader, more exciting and very strange world. The British are mostly pessimists, the Germans are oft expressionists, the Italians are realistic and the French, at least in the realm of moviemaking, have got it all.

Thus, the European Union presents   the annual European Film Festival so that Ethiopians are privy to this exciting world. It usually takes place in October and November and lasts around two weeks. This year, some 18 different European countries would have their movies screened at institutions of cultural relations in Addis Abeba, like the Alliance Ethio-Francaise, the British Council and (German) Goethe and Italian cultural institutes. But beware, all of these centres have terrible theatre halls with the one exception of the Italian Cultural Institute, where the picture and audio quality easily shame most of the capital’s cinema houses.

But the Festival’s official opening took place at the famed National Theatre, last Friday. The Festival, which endeavours to introduce European movies to the Americana drenched Ethiopian public, came out guns blazing with the best movie in its showtime schedule, the German film Toni Erdmann.

One of 2016’s highlights, Toni Erdmann is about a comedian who tries to reconnect with his daughter. Winfried (Peter Simonischek) is a lonely divorced middle-aged man. He is also a comedian with a wry sense of humour. His daughter, Ines (Sandra Huller), though, at least at first glance, is the total opposite. She too is lonely, but does not have a sense of humour about it. She has a high-flying career and is completely engrossed in her job. Her line of work oftentimes necessitates her to be detached and merciless.

One day, Winfried travels to Bucharest, where Ines lives. But despite Winfried’s efforts, he finds it hard to reconnect with his daughter. Their relationship quickly devolves and Ines is left with no choice but to leave. Thus, the father concocts Toni Erdmann using fake teeth and a wig – a character that keeps reappearing in Ines’ life to introduce himself to her colleagues and friends.

The film is not for everyone. It is the type one would either really hate or love. Standing at around 160 minutes, it has long scenes of uninterrupted quiet. The humour is unorthodox, sometimes the opposite of funny. And the father-daughter relationship is extremely aloof, a far-cry from the type of affection displayed within Ethiopian families. The emotional conclusion at the end of the movie is anything but emotional, at least from the perspective of how films usually conclude within the patronage of Hollywood.

But, of course, it is this weirdness that makes Toni Erdmann the ideal European movie. It never goes where we expect it to go. Scenes are constructed to throw us off balance. It immerses us into a very personal sphere, where characters express themselves in forms not yet posited by cinema Americana. The film is weird because the types of feelings few are willing to share are displayed, making the audience uncomfortable. It would be disturbing for those unacquainted with anger, resentment and wordlessness standing in for hugs, kisses and laughter to convey affection.

Toni Erdmann deserves a leap of faith. The length, subject matter and the fact that the film requires English subtitles are rarely exciting offerings to mainstream audiences, hence the film not being screened at Matti Multiplex. This is an adult movie; it is akin to a book. It requires the audience to meet it halfway, unlike commercial films that require us to lean back and enjoy the popcorn. It requires attention and a worldly view – the simple act of watching a film is not sufficient – thus takes its toll.

But beware. Few great European movies are appropriate for general audiences. The Europeans are more liberal than the Americans. They have a peculiar, to Ethiopians at least, way of depicting sex scenes, which is to mean plainly. Most European movies try to remove the sexiness from sex, because they prefer truth to showmanship. The proliferation of the internet and satellite dishes may have desensitised the Ethiopian public to French kisses and seductive dancing in music clips. But for all that newfound enterprising attitude, there is still a ways to go to watch a European movie without being shocked or self-conscious.

The Festival will continue until November 19. For my part, I will be looking forward to United Kingdom’s documentary Notes on Blindness, the Irish Brooklyn and the Italian entry Fire at Sea. It is not a bad couple of weeks to be a cinephile in Ethiopia.

Published on Nov 05,2017 [ Vol 18 ,No 915]



With a reformist administration in charge of the executive, there has b...


The new electricity tariffs that became effective on December 1, 2018,...


Who it is that midwifed the rapprochement between E...


Ethiopia’s economy is at a crossroads. The same old advice will not s...


A recent photo between Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) and George Soros...


The future is bleak. Millennials and younger generations who will inher...

View From Arada

There is heated debate on the propriety, decency and morality of breast...

Business Indicators


Editors Pick