Nothing strikes terror in the heart of parents quite like the thought of calamity befalling their children. But in writer/director Maren Ade’s already legendary (and freshly Oscar-nominated) German dramedy Toni Erdmann, a father inflicts cataclysmic misfortune onto his daughter very deliberately, swinging his madness around like a wrecking ball and infusing her life with chaos.
This very funny but desperately sad film says comedy isn’t tragedy plus time after all. Here humour and hardship exist in the same heartbeat, wrestling each other for the advantage.
Ade’s script is no garden variety genre picture: a father-daughter-reconnecting narrative framed as the story of a stalker (and vice versa). It is a highly distinctive and idiosyncratic piece of work. It’s also lured Jack Nicholson out of retirement; he will star in a remake.
Divorced semi-retired music teacher Winfried (Peter Simonischek) is a sort of wannabe prankster, who enjoys turning prosaic situations into meaningless bits of performance art for no-one in particular — as if his entire life is one flaky vaudeville act.
In the first scene we watch him interact with a delivery man, babbling something about how he has no idea what his criminal brother ordered. Winfried excuses himself then reappears moments later in different clothes, wearing dark glasses and fake gnarly teeth, with handcuffs around one of his wrists — as if he just escaped from jail.
After his dog dies, Winfried experiences what could be construed as an emotional breakdown or a mid-life crisis. However, applying any conventional definitions to Ade’s near-three hour epic of oddball humour is a problematic task.
The protagonist decides to reconnect with his evidently more sensible daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller), a 30-something corporate management executive busy pursuing an important contract extension with an oil company. In order to rekindle their relationship (although a degree of interpretation comes into play here) Winfried embraces an alter ego to free himself of personal baggage and reset himself to a blank state: a kind of entire-life palate cleanser.
“It will no doubt be one of the year’s great water cooler films; there’s no way to get it out of your mind.”
Posing as an ‘executive life coach’ named Toni Erdmann, Winfried sets about inveigling himself into his daughter’s day-by-day existence, wearing a terrible stringy wig and those ugly fake gnashers. This isn’t a film like Mrs. Doubtfire or Tootsie, where a splash of makeup and a costume change results in people who know the protagonist suddenly not recognising them. Ines knows exactly who he is, but is forced to play along lest she reveals — in sometimes delicate situations — her dad to be a madman.
It’s clear if Winfried were a woman nobody would tolerate his extreme and imbecilic behaviour; something Ines — surrounded by men — is surely aware of. Toni Erdmann is a film in part about privilege, particularly of the white and male variety.
It’s clear the society that accommodates Winfried and Erdmann will always listen to a certain kind of person, no matter how birdbrained their actions or thoughts may be. Clearly the absurdity of human behaviour is at the heart of all this, though Toni Erdmann is not the kind of film (too strange, too compelling) to fit into a neat line. Like that it’s “about people doing the right thing in the wrong ways.”
Peter Simonischek and Sandra Hüller are terrific in difficult, restraining roles, loaded with eccentricities played in a low key. Dedicated to reconnecting with Ines but dreadfully uncertain how to do it, Winfried gives it a crack and in the process invents a range of fabrications and roadblocks that make the task more difficult. The things in life he doesn’t need, at a time when he needs them least.
Comedies tend to be shorter and snappier than other kinds of films. Toni Erdmann’s monstrous running time places an unusual emphasis on space over pace, with laughs disappearing into a void. Many of Ade’s jokes linger in the middle or thereabouts of scenes, giving them plenty of time to breathe — or perhaps occasion to sour. This is where the sadness comes in, filling the frame like oxygen, taking us back to the roots of the father-daughter dynamic, which aches and swells in the manner of a great unresolved pain.
And … Erdmann is funny. Very funny. A predilection for offbeat humour is desirable and you’ll probably need to be a little patient with it, though the film’s enthusiastic reception suggests falling into its rhythm is the rule rather than the exception.
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Chopping it up into half hour TV episodes would be an interesting experiment, because I suspect it’d ruin everything. In a sense Toni Erdmann is a slow burn, emotions rather than atmosphere bearing the cumulative effect. It will no doubt be one of the year’s great water cooler films; there’s no way to get it out of your mind. Let Erdmann in, and the bastard keeps coming back.