Something a great many comedy films do is that they often eschew attaching humanity to their characters, opting instead to make them nothing but walking, talking punchlines – and it is infinitely refreshing to see a production that strays from that path.
Set predominantly in Bucharest, Toni Erdmann (Maren Ade) depicts the life of Winfried (Peter Simonischek), a struggling music teacher who finds himself without students and with only his ageing dog and his comic props for company. After a brief meeting with his daughter Ines who is briefly stopping over in Germany for a hasty preemptive birthday celebration, the death of his dog motivates him to spontaneously travel to Bucharest and stay with her. For Ines (Sandra Hüller) the stay is nightmarish, culminating in her raking him over the coals as he attempts to discuss the meaning of life with her. The two, from entirely different worlds, soon reach an impasse – but Winfried soon invents a curious persona and goes by the name of Toni Erdmann, a supposed life coach of Ines’ CEO. From there she takes a strange interest in him and starts to play along – and what follows is something insightful, blunt and bittersweet.
Toni Erdmann is, to a degree, certainly what it advertises itself as. It is a comedy through external appearances, but within the film itself the impact of the comedy is downplayed. Most of the laughs come from Winfried – but while the audience may get a chuckle out of his plight many of his antics are treated with considerably less gaiety in the film’s universe. His family and acquaintances bear most of his pranks and jokes with forced smiles, clenched teeth and thinly-masked confusion or disdain. While Tony himself is at the center of several genuinely funny set pieces, however, his character is not entirely a buffoon – rather, he is used to make an entirely different sort of statement.
That is because Toni Erdmann, at its heart, is an analysis of familial connections and the roots of the film lie in the separation that exists between its two leads. It is a story about a divide and attempts to heal it, all the while presenting a clear-cut examination of contemporary society and the wounds that relationships suffer within it, set against a backdrop of a ruthless corporate environment that the film treats with appropriate severity.
From Ines’ very first scene there is a palpable and almost suffocating distance between father and daughter made all the starker by the difference in their personalities and the accompanying generational divide. Her life revolves around conferences, phone calls and flights abroad. In effect, she is the embodiment of the working environment of the 21st century – to her, individuals must be calculated in terms of costs and benefits, money is satisfaction and she is a cog desperately churning in an environment where cold logic rules absolute and casual sexism is accepted without resistance. Despite her mostly emotionless exterior, she despises her job – and thus, as she hates herself in turn. As much as she frequently derides her father, Winfried is not incapable of asking his own incisive questions that cut into the very nature of Ines’ existence. “Are you even a human?”, he jokingly inquires early in the film. No answer is given.
Meanwhile, Winfried hails from a different time, and struggles to deal with Ines’ behaviour and with her effectively cutting him out of his life, often with criticism – “I know men your age with aspirations”, she remarks. On the surface, he is among the last of a dying breed eking by, but it is through the invented persona of Toni that he conveys his inner rebel. Appearing at times to be more of a coping mechanism than a comic routine, the facade of the buck-toothed and bewigged city-slicker is what compels Ines to participate in a game of one-upsmanship. While initially greatly embarrassed by her father’s act, she gradually comes to see Erdmann as a way out of her toxic working world and the harsh realities that it exposes to her. Though she does not shy from exposing her father to the commonplace cruelty of the world of business, she also comes to realise that Erdmann’s existence is meaningful. There is a wonderfully telling scene in a club where Ines, surrounded by her preoccupied and inebriated colleagues, looks at Erdmann calmly sitting nearby – and quietly weeps to herself. She alternates between being the typical dedicated businesswoman and someone who silently yearns for more, resulting in a personality that makes Hüller’s performance even more spellbinding.
The film is a decidedly human piece underneath a humorous outer layer, a quirky yet hard-hitting examination of the human condition, and compared to the messages it provides the comic aspect is almost secondary. First and foremost it is a tale not only about family ties and the erosion that sometimes befalls them, but also about the idea of happiness and what people do to obtain it. It is a clash of the old world against the new, a cocktail of 21st century ethics and desperation pitted against older values and an idealistic practical joker. It is a protracted prank, done out of a fatherly sense of concern and love, that ends making what seems like a generic premise so much more fruitful and poignant.
It is not without fault – parts of its key message are rather bluntly conveyed and the film is punishingly long, falling just shy of three hours, a fact that may potentially harm interest. On a similar note, those going in expecting a traditional father-daughter comedic yarn will leave unfulfilled and while it is certainly laugh-out-loud funny in a fair few places, it anchors itself in reality. There are scenes of all sorts in Toni Erdmann – some amusing, some awkward, some that are painfully uncomfortable, and this is how it should be. It is a film that reminds viewers that life is a cocktail of all those things and more besides, and that life is difficult – there is no certainty that anyone can truly learn anything or change the way they are, and the film shows as much.
At the same time, however, while living may be rough, this piece of art reminds us not to lose sight of our inner humanity. At one point in the film, Winfried approaches a pair of Croatian workers, and in one of his rare moments of complete seriousness he tells them: “Don’t lose the humour.” In the age that we live in, where so much passes us by, humour is just the thing we need to keep going.