Two recent films suggest a reckoning for the Western European elite
Artistic representations of the European continent’s most powerful political and economic body have, since its inception, been conspicuous by their absence. Since the Treaty of Paris in 1951, the start of what is now the European Union as we know it, narrative art has largely continued along national trajectories, with movements in cinema such as French New Wave, New German Cinema, New French Extremity and British New Wave each exploring and enacting its own country’s traits rather than expanding to encompass the wider pan-continental context.
With the expansion of the EU project and ever-greater European integration, why has this been the case? The continuation of national concerns taking priority is a symptom of the absence of a genuinely pan-European cultural identity, formed to compete with those of individual nations and this is reflected in literature and cinema. The presence of the European Union, despite the arguments of its detractors, can easily be ignored by many of its citizens, few of whom participate in its few gestures towards direct and representative democracy (42% voted in the last EU election in 2014).
But after three distinct yet interlinked crises, beginning with the debt crisis and followed closely by the refugee crisis and the Brexit referendum result, there have been new attempts to understand what effects the political operation has had and continues to have, and the tangible reality of what it’s like to live in Europe in the era of the EU. Two recent films not only represent the reality of the conditions the EU has created but also reckon with the issues that have led to the current period of perpetual crisis and might yet lead to its downfall.
Ruben Östlund’s The Square (2017) takes place in one of the most pan-European sectors: the art industry. The film’s protagonist, Christian, is the curator of contemporary art gallery in Stockholm. His co-workers, the gallery’s exhibiting artists and the wider cultural coterie speak English, Swedish and Danish depending whom they’re interacting with, but they’re also placeless, a mono-identitied elite. Christian drives a Tesla, wears a sharp suit without a tie, and lives in an apartment that looks like a page from Kinfolk or Monocle magazine. He is as smooth and likeable as his life is comfortable, he lives well and easily.
The film gets its title from a new artwork that the gallery will soon exhibit. The work consists of a square space enclosed by lines in which altruism is compulsory. The artist’s statement reads thus: “The Square is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within it we all share equal rights and obligations.” It’s a utopian space, which one assumes will facilitate trust and equality, or at least gesture in that direction. It’s a blunt metaphor of how Christian’s cosmopolitan, liberal clique see themselves.
But despite the best intentions of Christian and his associates, uncomfortable situations and characters continually interrupt their ethical, comfortable lives. Towards the start of the film, Christian’s iPhone and wallet are stolen. He manages to track his phone down with the aid of his assistant Michael, and they travel to the pin indicating its location, a housing project in the city’s outskirts. They post an anonymous, threatening letter through the doors of the flats in the block, demanding the phone and wallet are dropped off at a nearby 7-Eleven. A package is deposited at the 7-Eleven containing both the phone and the wallet. But a few days later, a young boy from the block confronts Christian, demanding that Christian make it clear to his parents, who now believe he is a thief, that he didn’t steal the phone and wallet, and threatening to ‘make chaos’ for Christian. The boy continues to badger Christian, knocking on all the doors in Christian’s apartment block, screaming. Christian pushes him down the stairs. At the end of the film, Christian is overcome by guilt and returns to the boy’s block to make peace, but he and his family have moved away. Christian’s effort to be a good citizen and a bastion of liberal society comes unstuck when he’s confronted with the real consequences his behaviour causes for someone he should help.
Elsewhere, a man with Tourette syndrome interrupts a press conference given by an exhibiting artist (played by a brooding Dominic West), screaming expletives at irregular intervals. The assembled audience, impeccably mannered art world denizens, rightly accommodate the man, doing their best to continue as if nothing is happening, but the effect is a rising tension created by the friction between their good manners and understandable discomfort.
Similarly, in what is perhaps the film’s most well-known scene, diners at a banquet at the gallery are witness to a work of performance art. A huge, shirtless man plays the character of a neanderthal ‘monster’, jumping on diners’ tables, screaming in their faces, breaking plates and assaulting them. They have been instructed to remain still and silent, and so there’s a tension between them respecting what they’ve been told is a work of art and reacting naturally to a potentially traumatic situation.
In these tensions, we can see the friction between a well-meaning elite and the uncomfortable other inserted into what they perceive to be their own environment. They are dedicated to working towards the world of The Square, in which nothing is refused and everyone is welcome. But outside the square, there are those who seek to threaten this utopia, and it is revealed to be incapable of dealing with any external threats without resorting to creeping authoritarianism.
Christian may well be the archetypal good guy and the life he has created for himself might appear liberal, inclusionary and open, but it’s founded upon a hidden repressive nature. It’s difficult to ignore the parallel between Christian and his affiliates and an out-of-touch European elite purporting to further progressive causes at the expense of their citizens.
This is the populist view of the European Union, but presented in this manner it has the uncomfortable ring of truth. Every time Christian has the opportunity to genuinely help someone in need or put into place more equitable structures of political or economic power, he shrinks back and is unable to do so. Yet his job and life depend on his public image as the decent liberal.
It’s a blunt metaphor, but we might see the square and Christians’ behaviour as a mirror to the European Union, a zone whose elite insists on its openness while thousands die at its borders, who boast of their moral goodness until genuine problems arise, at which point they respond with crippling austerity measures or the suspension of democracy.
In Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann (2016), the imbalanced economic conditions that underpin the European project are rendered upon personal relationships. Notionally an intergenerational comedy exploring the relationship between a father and his daughter, the film is set half in Aachen and half in Bucharest, where the daughter, Ines, is working on behalf of a consultancy. In an attempt to rekindle their relationship, her father Winfried visits her in Budapest.
Ines lives an insulated life, moving between her office, expensive restaurants and a spa complex. In attempts to secure a lucrative contract, she makes increasingly desperate efforts to integrate herself with the CEO of a German oil company, the wife of whom she agrees to take shopping in Bucharest’s cavernous shopping mall. Feeling unwanted by Ines, Winfried ostensibly returns to Germany before returning in the character of Toni Erdmann, a ‘life coach and business leader’ with a set of huge false teeth and an unconvincing wig. Toni asserts himself in various situations in Ines’s life, crashing social engagements and business meetings — to Ines’s horror. Eventually, Ines comes round to her father’s act, and engages in his literalist, German brand of humour. She throws a party at her flat but decides to answer the door half naked to her business connections and friends, insisting that it’s a ‘naked party’ and that they have to join in.
The most politically illustrative scene comes when Ines and Winfried visit an oilfield outside Bucharest. Here, they witness the economic circumstances that are obscured in the Bucharest that Ines experiences, which consists of cocktail bars, Michelin-starred restaurants and health clubs. The oil workers subsist in poverty, and Ines finds it impossible to interact with their union leaders. Winfried takes Ines to a Romanian family’s birthday party near the oil field, and prods her into singing a Whitney Houston song for them. She overcomes her shyness and embarrassment and loses herself in her rendition.
What’s striking about this scene in the context of the rest of the film is its aesthetic starkness. Ines’s Bucharest is a sanitised, new-European economic zone, and her life never deviates from the luxury trappings of business. Her visit to the oil field is jarring not just because of the contrast, but because these things are necessarily interlinked: Ines’s life is presupposed on the economic output of these workers, but she could not have less in common with them. And yet understanding them offers her salvation. When Ines sings at the behest of her father there appears to be a genuine father-daughter bond between them, and also with the the native Romanians. From here, Ines rediscovers her own nature and rekindles the relationship with her father.
Romania joined the EU in 2007, and has since been subject to the economic imperialism of richer EU countries such as Germany, represented here by Ines’s consultancy. The link between Romania’s native poor and Ines’s faceless consultancy is intrinsic yet invisible. It’s an exploitative relationship that neither sees, the fate of the former decided by the latter in boardrooms and at drinks parties. Winfried is representative of the idea of an old European solidarity, of stripping away the jargon of intracontinental capital to reconnect with the shared humanity beneath. In this sense, Toni Erdmann is a naive film, harking back to a golden period of European relations that perhaps never existed, although it could equally be read as a contrast between the post-War social contract and neoliberalism. Either way, it’s a welcome critique of the current economic, social and political relationships within the continent, and the place of the EU in this context.
With the European crises of the past decade as yet unresolved and the increasing potential for new crises in Italy and Hungary, not to mention those still unforeseen, it remains unclear what the future of the EU will look like. With The Square and Toni Erdmann, it appears that Europe’s artistic class is beginning to finally wake up to the problems and untether their politics from the insulation provided by EU funding.
Neither film identifies easy solutions to the cluster of problems intrinsic to the project, and it would be too much to expect them to, particularly without resorting to the reactionary politics to which many of Europe’s leading intellectuals have succumbed. But by tracing the fissures in the relationships that the future of the project will rely on, there is at least the suggestion that Europe’s creative class might be moving towards an understanding of the contradictions driving its political and economic crises. It’s vital that the EU’s political class follows suit.