Toni Erdmann will make you laugh, even though it’s not really a comedy, says MacDara Conroy
On the face of it, Toni Erdmann does everything wrong. A near three-hour, bittersweet German comedy-drama that places familial estrangement against a background of capitalist exploitation? That’s three strikes against it right there. So would you believe me if I told you that time time flies by? That you’ll be swept up by its emotional ups and downs? That it’s genuinely, at times even uproariously funny?
Maren Ade’s film doesn’t play by the usual comedy blueprint, that’s for sure. For the most part it’s barely describable as a comedy. Still, the plot is a simple one, at times even a little too blunt in its message.
The first scenes introduce us to Winfried (Peter Simonischek), a retired music teacher in Aachen with a penchant for risible pranks and general young-at-heart silliness that’s indulged by friends and loved ones, ex-wife included. This isn’t so surprising, perhaps because Ade underscores his loyalty to a fault.
Winfried contrasts with his daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller), a highly strung consultant in the Romanian oil industry who’s on a flying visit home but can’t stay off the phone long enough to connect with her parents for more than small talk.
Prompted by the death of his beloved elderly dog (an emotionally manipulative moment, for sure, but one also handled with poignancy and tenderness), Winfried travels to Bucharest, completely unannounced, in an attempt to reconnect with Ines. The dutiful daughter obliges his whimsy, though it’s the worst possible weekend for her, with a visiting oil executive to entertain — and butter up for a business deal — plus a Big Presentation on Monday, an unnecessary concession to sitcom orthodoxy.
Suffice it to say that the stay does not go well, and Winfried leaves Ines on poor terms, in a scene that perfectly encapsulates Ade’s approach to humour: father and daughter standing awkwardly in silence as a lift climbs with aching slowness to their floor, just one more wedge between them.
The film switches focus at this point, to follow Ines through the complications of her life in Bucharest, navigating the oppressive chauvinism of a business world that treats human lives as spreadsheet numbers, and the kinks of her love life, where even the chance to exercise the control she’s denied elsewhere leaves her unfulfilled.
Within days, this monotony is interrupted in outrageous fashion when her father suddenly reappears as ‘Toni Erdmann’, a bewigged, false-toothed alter ego who presents himself as a ‘life coach’, much to everyone’s bemusement — bar Ines, whose initial horror at his sudden intrusion quickly gives way to a morbid curiosity, a willingness to see how far he’s willing to take it.
From here on in, there is no escaping Toni Erdmann. Even at work he’s lurking in the background, a taunt personified. But Ines is not one to back down. There’s a callback to an off-hand remark about fart jokes early in the film when Toni produces a whoopie cushion, just one of a series of small challenges to his daughter at which she ups the ante by snorting cocaine in front of him during a night on the tiles, daring him to break kayfabe.
But is his ruse working? They’re spending more and more time together, after all — Ines even stringing him along to business meetings as a consultant of vague description, despite the deliberate falsity of his get-up. Besides, perhaps the joke is really on him, when an on-site visit to a rural oil field tests the limits of how much change ‘Toni’ can effect with his lighthearted approach to the world.
The film crescendos towards a duo of party scenes – one marked by a rousing performance of Whitney Houston’s ‘The Greatest Love Of All’, the other a farcical business brunch with the most unusual of guests, all of it played deadly straight – that looks ludicrous on paper (or web page, as it were) yet in the moment feels just right, as if things couldn’t be any other way. But where another filmmaker might take that as a natural ending, Ade pulls a fast one and drags things out for another 15 minutes with a funeral back in Germany, a chance to reflect on what life means to the protagonists, and that reconciliation doesn’t preclude loneliness.
All the while, Ade does the remarkable job of making us empathise with both sides in this conflicting relationship: Hüller and Simonischek’s performances make tangible the embarrassment, the melancholy, the deep abiding affection that underpins their game, for lack of a better word. In this situation, maybe many wrongs do make a right.
More to the point, though, Toni Erdmann will make you laugh. Even though it’s still not really a comedy.
Toni Erdmann opens at Dublin’s IFI and Light House Cinema on Friday February 3rd
Also published on Medium.