What if I told you one of the best, funniest, most moving movies of the year is a bittersweet German comedy that’s almost three hours long?
Probably a hard sell, but it’s worth it: Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann is the rare film that had me literally in tears from laughter, and then from actual emotion. Centering on a father who refuses to do what’s expected of him, and a daughter whose drive to be nothing like him has driven her to the verge of hysterics, Toni Erdmann constructs a hothouse in which the absurdity of modern life can be both exposed and forgiven.
Rather than taking the joke-a-minute slapstick approach, Toni Erdmann slow-burns its humor, winding up to the punch with care and pathos that renders the punchline all the more poignant.
Toni Erdmann pits a prankster father against his neurotic daughter
Winfried (Peter Simonischek) is a middle school music teacher and a practical joker who lives alone with his beloved dog and likes to frighten mailmen with false teeth and a wig. He rarely sees his daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller), who works for a consulting firm. She’s been in Bucharest for a year, working with an oil company.
But after seeing her briefly as she’s passing through Germany, he gets a little concerned about her: She’s always on the phone, she seems to have abandoned all sense of humor, and she appears to have trouble calming down. So Winfried decides to visit Ines, unannounced.
This is, of course, a recipe for disaster, mostly because Winfried can’t (or won’t) curb his more impish instincts. He brings along a pair of false teeth and a wig that he pops on at inopportune moments. He jokes with an executive at the oil company that he’s hired a substitute daughter since he doesn’t see Ines anymore, and that she clips his toenails. Over the course of a few days, he incenses Ines, who’s stressed out over a big presentation she’s about to give at work. She snaps, and he ends up leaving early.
Or so she thinks. He resurfaces days later in the wig and the teeth, plus a cheap shiny suit, and introduces himself to Ines and two friends at a swanky bar as Toni Erdmann, a freelance life coach. Ines is too dumbfounded to do anything about it, but he keeps turning up as Toni, seemingly wherever Ines is poised for peak embarrassment: in front of her boss, at work receptions, in her closet.
What exactly he’s going for is unclear. Either he’s trying to finally push her over the edge or it’s something like exposure therapy. But that’s part of the story: Ines doesn’t know, either, and the transformation in her — and in her father — is gradual and messy. Everything that happens in Toni Erdmann is enigmatic, and everything characters say to one another has another meaning beyond what’s on the surface.
Toni Erdmann leans on irony and disjunction to satirize a rapidly modernizing Europe
The first time through Toni Erdmann, a lot of effort is expended in trying to sort out why characters are doing what they’re doing, since they rarely state it outright. What they don’t say is much more important than what they do say. (That’s the fun of it.) That means the film gets even better upon second viewing; what was once inexplicable now becomes rich with meaning.
But the humor in Toni Erdmann mostly comes from some kind of cinematic brick joke, in which the seeds of punchlines and sight gags are sown so long before their culmination that it’s easy to forget they’re there at all. And that means when they come back it’s even funnier, especially in one unforgettable culminating scene.
To say that Toni Erdmann is a comedy, though, isn’t really to say it’s funny. It is, of course (and often wickedly funny; you’ll never look at petit fours or experience team-building exercises the same way again). But it’s really a comedy in the classical sense, which usually pitted idealistic youth against societal conventions in setups that yielded dramatic irony (where the audience knows the full significance of what they’re watching, but the character doesn’t). What’s funny is the disjunction of what’s being seen and what’s being said, the mismatch of intentions and actions.
Toni Erdmann is loaded with ironies and disjunctions, with worlds colliding to darkly humorous effect. Ines never really seems to be inhabiting the world she’s in: stressed out in a spa, glued to her phone at her own birthday party, required to be pleasant to people she doesn’t really like. She resents her father partly because he sees the world through a lens of absurdity — one she knows all along is there — and plays along with it.
Those absurdities are present in the silliness of what she, as a consultant, is paid to do: to recommend huge, unpopular cost-cutting measures that executives are unwilling to do themselves, at the expenses of people’s livelihoods. They’re present in the way she has to make nice with people who are playing the social small-talk game, or in the way she has to pretend to like the man she’s sleeping with while obviously finding him ridiculous. They’re all over the film’s view of what it takes to get ahead in modern business.
Where Toni Erdmann really gets satirical, though, is in Ines’s job: She’s a German executive at a global consulting firm working for a company trying to “modernize” Romania. At several points, the film highlights the income disparity between old and new Europe, once by letting the camera pan from where Ines stands on a swanky balcony making a phone call to her view of the ramshackle housing just over the wall. The old and new are crashing into each other in Romania, the movie suggests, and the new may not have the best interests of the old in mind.
But Toni Erdmann doesn’t push the satire too hard, mostly focusing on its central father-daughter relationship, which certainly transcends members of the European Union. Daughters embarrassed by their dads — and dads worrying about their daughters — are everywhere, and Toni Erdmann is as concerned with that relationship as anything else: the humor, the pathos, and the love behind it all. The world is absurd, full of absurd things and absurd people. The trick is to love them in spite of it.
Toni Erdmann is playing in selected theaters.