The 1985 video for Whitney Houston’s version of “Greatest Love of All” is now – after Houston’s years of alleged abuse in her marriage with Bobby Brown, her drug addictions, her death in a bathtub at age 48 in 2012, and the subsequent 2015 death of her daughter Bobbi Kristina Brown – almost unbearably sad to watch. The gorgeous young Whitney strolls through the backstage of an empty Apollo Theater. “Let the children’s laughter remind us how we used to be,” she sings, as a ghostly troupe of kids materialise on the stage, all dressed up and nervously preparing for a performance. In the center is the child Whitney, accompanied by her smiling mother (played by Houston’s actual mother, Cissy Houston). The young Whitney is the only kid who is not dressed up for the stage; she’s in a simple skirt and blouse, as if she’s come with her mother for a backstage tour. In the midst of these privileged (and mostly white) showbiz kids, she looks awestruck; they are trained performers, but she’s just a visitor, a fan (and a “natural”), dreaming of what it would be like to walk this hallowed stage as someone who belonged there.

Whitney Houston and Toni Erdmann

Whitney Houston, 1985.

“I believe the children are our future”: that line used to strike me as ludicrously sentimental – the entire song did – but now I can see that Houston’s not really singing about the “the children,” but about one child, herself, the non-performing girl-Whitney, for whom the scene of public performance was still only imagined, part of a longed-for future. (Houston started performing at age 11 as a soloist in the junior gospel choir at the New Hope Baptist Church in Newark). When she was innocent, untested, full of yet-unrealised talents. Now, as the adult Houston continues her stroll through the Apollo, which slowly populates with musicians and stagehands, the troupe of children rematerialise, and this time, Cissy Houston gives girl-Whitney a gentle nudge outward from the group. As Houston sings, “I never found anyone who fulfilled my needs/A lonely place to be,” girl-Whitney gives a little shrug and a shy smile, and steps to a microphone, looking solemn as she approaches her destiny.

The song seems to ask: do unique gifts and high achievement require an absence of reciprocal love – permitting only a love for and by oneself? In the video’s girl-Whitney plot, a shy young child enjoys perfect trust and support from a loving mother who is continually there with her, urging her on, encouraging her talents. Meanwhile, the adult Houston, who has attained her dreams and is now a star, sings a crushingly sad song about a self-sufficiency that can admit no companionship: “I decided long ago, never to walk in anyone’s shadows… I learned to depend on me.” Finally, Houston enters stage left, now resplendent in a white gown, walking to center stage, and there meeting her at the spotlight is… herself as a child, girl-Whitney, in her school outfit, walking towards her adult self in front of an audience – until the girl-Whitney disappears into thin air. As the child Whitney is subsumed into the adult, Houston turns to us, dancing slowly by herself as she sings: “I found the greatest love of all – inside of me.”

Whitney and Cissy Houston in the “Greatest Love of All” video

Having crossed over to the actual world of stardom, and having thereby destroyed it as an idealised fantasy, Houston now seems deeply alone. The song’s lyrics present themselves as a paean to self-love and self-respect, and after concluding her performance, Houston receives a hug from her mother. But that embrace, and the song’s ostensibly uplifting message, is haunted by a sense that “that special place/That you’ve been dreaming of” will “Lead you to a lonely place”: that the place of special talent is in fact one of deep isolation.

“Greatest Love of All” receives a brilliant reprisal – one that seems to develop themes from the Houston video – in Toni Erdmann, the film by German director Maren Ade that was Germany’s 2016 Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film (and that is, unfortunately, in the works for an American remake starring Jack Nicholson). The film is, like the Houston video, a drama of a talented child and her hovering parent. It begins with Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek), a shaggily eccentric middle-aged music teacher with a penchant for disguises. Feeling cut off from his daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller), a high-powered management consultant, Winfried shows up uninvited to visit her in Bucharest, where she is advising an oil company who appears to be looking for cover for an outsourcing project that will lay off scores of local workers. With the help of a bad wig and false teeth, Winfried soon reveals an alter ego as a life coach named “Toni Erdmann,” in which guise he begins to stalk his daughter and to drop in on her meetings and social events.

Whitney Houston and Toni Erdmann

Ines (Peter Simonischek) and Winfried (Sandra Hüller) in Toni Erdmann

Late in the film, Winfried drags Ines along as he crashes a jovial family Easter party, claiming to be the German ambassador accompanied by his secretary. After a lesson in traditional Romanian Easter Egg dyeing, and as Ines tries to ease their way out of the party, Winfried spies an electric keyboard in the living room and suggests that he and his “secretary” might perform a song as a way to thank the family for their hospitality. Asking Ines under his breath to be polite, he sits down and introduces “the fabulous… Whitney Schnuck!”  After a long, baleful look at her father, as he vamps on the keyboard, Ines tucks in her blouse, and launches into song: of course, “Greatest Love of All.”

Whitney Houston and Toni Erdmann

Ines is no Houston, but she knows the song well, and gives it her all, with an expressive repertoire of facial and performative gestures. The scene invites the question: is Ines the Whitney Houston in this scenario, with her musician father in the Cissy Houston role? Ines is, as Houston was, a highly-trained, successful, and well-compensated professional. But where Houston’s art was constructed out of voice, song, costume, and theater, Ines is a master of the managerial tools of corporate sales and PowerPoint presentation- which also, of course, involve costume and theater. In one key scene, Ines gets a blood stain on her white blouse right before a crucial presentation, and has to trade outfits with her put-upon young assistant. Ade has commented, “I was intrigued by the job of business consultants because, in some way, they’re also playing a part.”1

Ade may be drawing on associations with the Houston version of the song to hint at Ines’s isolation and loneliness, her professional mastery, and the complexity of her experience as a daughter and her feelings of ambivalent parental attachment.  The song advises: “And if, by chance, that special place/ That you’ve been dreaming of/ Leads you to a lonely place/ Find your strength in love.” The film depicts Ines as stranded in a very “lonely place”: that of 21st-century global capitalism, as viewed from the perspective of an itinerant corporate outsourcer camped out in a sleekly sterile high-rise apartment.

Toni Erdmann is also fundamentally about performance, disguise, and personae; about the masks we don and the performances we enact, both for our careers, and in our personal lives and our most intimate attachments. Ines’s performance of “Greatest Love of All” is at once a show-stopping musical performance, and an anthithesis – or parody? or inverting mimicry? – of the corporate performance style in which she is an expert. It feels like Ines’s ironic but also partly-joyful abandonment of all of the corporate proprieties that until now she has been carefully observing. (And that she soon will shed yet more dramatically in subsequent scenes.)

We have to wonder, given Ines’ deep familiarity with the song: is this duet a reprise of some earlier performance, one freighted with emotional significance?  In the film’s opening scenes, we saw Winfried performing as an extra in a school play, and it seems plausible that he is asking Ines to revive a school performance from her childhood – to play along in a father-daughter duet that once signified their emotional intimacy, now attentuated to a point of near-extinction.

Whitney Houston and Toni Erdmann

Ade has said of the scene: “what I really wanted, was for Ines to sing that song as though she doesn’t want to sing it… there has to be an option where the way of singing is to say ‘fuck you.’”2 Ines’ mike-dropping performance finally seems to ask: what love does a child owe, or should a child feel, for a parent when she is no longer in fact a child? Ines’ father is, in effect, asking her to “remind us how we used to be,” to put on a performance of reverence for the sustaining bonds of parents and children. She finally does what he asks in performing the song, but rejects his claim on her. She holds the final word of “find your strength in love” for a full (if shaky) seven seconds, looks over at her father, nods briskly to the audience, and is out of the apartment almost before the applause begins.

 

Endnotes

  1. Zhuo-Ning Su “Maren Ade on ‘Toni Erdmann,’ Being Inspired By Andy Kaufman, and Finding a Dramatic Balance”, The Film Stage, 19 May 2016 https://thefilmstage.com/features/maren-ade-on-toni-erdmann-being-inspired-by-andy-kaufman-and-finding-a-dramatic-balance/
  2. Steve MacFarlane, “Interview: Maren Ade and Sandra Hüller on Making Toni Erdmann”, Slant Magazine, 19 December 2016 www.slantmagazine.com/features/article/interview-maren-ade-and-sandra-hueller-on-making-toni-erdmann