Maren Ade’s bracingly original (and Academy Award-nominated) Toni Erdmann – a creatively ambidextrous, almost uncategorisable tour de force of modern German cinema – is out now in cinemas across the UK. The film opened over here on 3rd February, following a thunderous showcase on the festival circuit which began all the way back at Cannes last May. On 7th February – just FOUR DAYS after its theatrical release – Variety broke the news that rights to a US remake had been secured by Paramount Pictures, with stars Kristen Wiig and Jack Nicholson attached. Citizens of this country in particular were not even granted a single week to refer to Toni Erdmann as simply “Toni Erdmann“, because now in any form of discussion, “the original” has to be tacked onto title, like a dirty smear which you just wish would go away.
Now this is hardly the first time a foreign language film (meaning one that’s predominant language foundation is not English…), has been remade to suit the masses of America or England, but in the case of Ade’s latest, it stings considerably more than usual. The logic behind any sort of retelling or reproducing should be simple: to make improvements to the narrative. Nothing more, nothing less. A studio wouldn’t remake Lawrence of Arabia just because a producer wasn’t keen on the musical choices, nor would a filmmaker opt to reboot The Godfather because some of the lighting was a bit too dim the first time round. These choices would be made entirely with the story and characterisation in mind. Perhaps modernising the drama and period detailing of Lawrence of Arabia, or reconstructing The Godfather‘s family framework, therefore changing the perspective. One isn’t suggesting either of these is a good idea (please, for the love of God, do not remake those movies…), but they emphasise a point. The only creative reason why a US studio would decide to remake a foreign language film is purely to remove the subtitles. That is it. Case closed.
In the case of Toni Erdmann, narratively the film cannot be improved. It is a near-perfect, tonally-exquisite portrait of an estranged father and daughter, which straddles the finite beam between hilarity and heartbreak with impeccable measurement. Regardless of what screenwriter, director, or actor you bring into the fold, the end product will not be superior to the original. You might par it – might – but then again, if you can only match it, then why the hell would you opt to remake it in the first place?
But Hollywood will take their chances because their version will almost certainly trump Ade’s film financially. The mindset is that “people don’t like to read subtitles”, therefore films not in the English language make considerably less money at the multiplexes. There is an element of truth here, in that Toni Erdmann would have made a lot less than its release day competition Rings or Resident Evil: The Final Chapter, but only because of the vast difference in screening volume. For every one showing of Toni Erdmann, there will likely be 100 showings of Rings.
The notion that foreign language films make less money purely because of subtitles is both presumptuous, and pretty rude. It basically argues that people are too lazy and/or stupid to actually pay attention to the film, therefore not bothering to watch. Ask anyone who regularly watches, or has watched, a subtitled picture, and you will never hear the response “I didn’t understand it because they spoke in a different language”. They might say they loved it, they hated it, found it entertaining, found it boring, whatever, but they will never critique the film purely based on a bit of scrolling text at the base of the frame.
From a studio’s perspective, they don’t want you to think this way however, instead as if they are doing you a favour. You’ve heard all about that intriguing festival hit Toni Erdmann, but didn’t wish to sit through a near three-hour German language movie, so they’ve met you half-way: a new version, starring [insert recognisable actor/actress here]. A great reason why foreign films are so frequently more involving than English language cinema is because we rarely have the same affiliation to those on screen, therefore buying in deeper to their stories and characters. The immaculate performances from Sandra Hüller, and Peter Simoneschek in Ade’s film are so painfully real and human, and chances are a vast majority of audiences will only see the frantic and unconventional relationship shared between parent and child, not a duo of established international performers.
When the remake comes around, no matter how brilliant Wiig and Nicholson are, and they very much could be brilliant, audiences will still see that nutter from The Shining who sleeps with women 50 years his younger, and that funny lady from Saturday Night Live and the new Ghostbusters (remember the reaction that remake received…). The prior knowledge of their cultural and celebrity status ensures a level of detachment, even if its only very slight. When we watch Mission: Impossible, we see Tom Cruise, not Ethan Hunt. Not a criticism of his abilities; merely a confirmation of his social relevance.
Now Nicholson hasn’t starred in a film since James L. Brooks’ 2010 dud How Do You Know, which many believed would be his last role; he is nearly 80 after all. But word has it that he loved Toni Erdmann so much, that he rushed to Paramount and persuaded them to lock in the ownership of an American adaptation. If he “loved” the film as dearly as he proclaims, perhaps the best thing would have been to state how great Toni Erdmann is, and what a remarkable job Maren Ade accomplished, rather than selling out its very soul for a parade of vanity and cheap dollar bills…
Toni Erdmann (the original…) is out now in UK and US cinemas. Filmoria presented Maren Ade with the Best Original Screenplay award at The Isaacs; our alternative Academy Awards.