Directed by Maren Ade
Maybe it’s because we’re so amazed at the prospect of Germans being funny, or just at the fact that a funny film is being taken seriously for once, that it’s primarily as a comedy that Toni Erdmann is being lauded. Well, it does have many funny moments, laugh-out-loud farcical, in fact, but great though it is to be allowed to laugh at an arthouse film for once (when was a comedy last so highly regarded?), it’s the underlying themes of this intriguing piece that make it so remarkable. And, to be honest, the jokes are often too protracted.
Winfried (Peter Simonischek) is a man who loves a practical joke. He has the props – a dodgy wig and big false teeth, with which he even tries to prank the poor postman. His daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller) is an ambitious high-flying businesswoman whom he’s losing connection with. You sense already he’s lonely, and when his old dog dies he sets off to spend time with her and try to revive their relationship. Arriving in Bucharest where she is working, it soon becomes clear that there’s an emptiness between them, and she’s not sorry to see the back of him. But not to be put off he embarks upon a long-term strategy to win her interest and unfreeze her serious pursuit of success, by suddenly popping up back in her life decked out in his crass props as ‘Toni Erdmann’, unconventional eccentric life coach. He looks seedy and behaves in an uninhibited and often vulgar fashion, but her polite friends and colleagues, not knowing who he is, accept him as a mad but harmless eccentric. Ines is furious (wouldn’t you be?) but gradually allows him to tag along. In fact she begins to reveal that she is not without eccentricities herself – maybe she’s learning from him that people’s social facades are so potent that you can make them take anything as normal.
Some nasty business with a petit four is disturbing and an accidentally naked birthday party hilarious, but from all this emerges a more sombre tale. If Winfried with his shabby crammed house is the old Europe, Ines is the new, a world of plain, blank hotels and meeting rooms among people who have little real affection for each other. She is bloodlessly pale and slim, pared down, he is florid and large, expansive. Her job disregards national boundaries, streamlining business for profit, with all the resulting human casualties merely incidental . There’s a telling moment when Ines looks down from her smart modern flat to a messy yard in the next street where everything is grubby and desultory. Later ‘Toni’ joins Ines on a trip to a small oilfield, the grimy actuality of the data Ines deals with. Here we have a glimpse of the lives of the ordinary workers whose livelihoods Ines and her colleagues control, and see how their behaviour is gracious and kindly, as is that of the middle class Easter party they later crash. With both these groups Winfried needs no fancy label but is treated as a fellow human being.
In a masterful climax, the most knockabout and funniest and then the most moving sequence, Winfried takes on a final disguise, as if his wig has taken him over completely (incidentally, it’s a prop from old, old Europe), and Ines’s defences are at last conquered. But for me the reconciliation people have found at the end doesn’t take place. In a coda at a family funeral, they have come to terms with one another, but Ines is off again further afield in the rampant advance of globalisation, while he remains in a house of old memories looking out onto an unfathomable forest.
Seen at Tyneside Cinema, February 2017