Director: Maren Ade
R | 2h 42min | Comedy, Drama | 3 February 2017 (UK)
laying London Film Festival 2016
Browbeaten children often complain that our parents are put on this earth to torment us, but with Toni Erdmann, the new, off-kilter black comedy from German film-maker Maren Ade, the generational torment is of a very special nature indeed. With its story about a possibly-deranged father who keeps assuming bizarre and comedic alternate identities in order to provoke his estranged younger daughter, Toni Erdmann will probably appeal to fans of the comedies of Sacha Baron Cohen and the like, where laughter and queasiness are bedfellows, as well as the uber deadpan comedies of the Nordic variety. There are plenty of genuinely funny moments here, but half the time audiences might well wonder if they should be laughing, especially when the narrative takes a curveball turn halfway through and makes you re-asses the relationship between the two characters. Tonally, the film slides around in a fascinating way.
Toni Erdmann actually doesn’t exist, or, at least, he doesn’t until willed into existence as one of the joke aliases of divorced schoolteacher Winfried Conradi, who is aimlessly whiling away his semi-retirement in suburban Germany. A lumbering bear of a man with a blood pressure problem, nothing seems too off about Winfried, even when we see him attending a goodbye drinks reception for his soon-to-emigrate, business-minded daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller), who is taking up a post as a consultant to an oil firm in Bucharest, in skull makeup. He has an excuse: the school he teaches at was having a retirement party for the headmaster, requiring fancy dress costume (although..skulls?). But the longer we observe Winfried, the more we realise there is something else going on.
For one thing, Winfried seems to have no intention of taking the makeup off. Then, at certain times, we see him reach into his pocket for a set of fake protruding teeth, shove them into his mouth, and adopt a set of bizarre mannerisms, sometimes in mid conversation. When a delivery man approaches his door later, Winfried tries on several different personas with him, throwing both the teeth and crazy sunglasses into the mix, confusing the hapless guy. It seems we are looking at a habitual master of prankish disguise. Annoying for sure, but presumably harmless. Gradually though, the unease builds. When his beloved mutt passes away, something seems to be triggered inside the lonely Winfried, and he spontaneously decides to reconnect with Ines, paying her a flying visit in Bucharest. With Ines obviously consumed by work, constantly taking phone calls and fretting over a difficult outsourcing deal her firm is tangled up in, her father seems to take it on himself in response that that his daughter’s life should have a proverbial fire lit under it. Before long, his bewigged, snaggle-toothed alter ego ‘Toni Erdmann’ has made an appearance.
For the next 45 minutes, Ade’s film plays out a bit like the film Borat, with Toni turning up at the worst moments from Ines’s POV, ambushing her at work and at functions, spinning ridiculous tales of his love of cheese graters and the expense of hiring “substitute daughters”. He is not beneath resorting to fart cushion gags and hiding in wardrobes to get a few jump scares. At one point, a coke snorting session that he barges in on during one of Ines’s night’s out ends with him covering his head in grated cheese, an utterly random gesture that leaves everyone speechless. Ade keeps the takes long, sparing us nothing. Many of these antics are side-splittingly funny, but there is undeniably a dark, tantalising undercurrent to this. Even though they are related, Winfried is essentially stalking his daughter. And the psychology behind this madcap scheme is murky. Is Winfried suffering some kind of breakdown? Is this an extreme overreaction to what he sees as his daughter’s sacrifice of her dreams to the chilling world of hard-edged business? The last cry for affection from an old man not in the best of health? What makes actor Peter Simonischek’s performance so fascinating (beyond the physical commitment to looking like a freak) is how, as Toni takes over more and more screen time, we find it harder to judge if any reaction that we see on his face genuinely belongs to Winifred any more. Is that Winifred betraying hurt at his daughter’s coldness to him, or just another twitch to make Toni look more grotesque?
At three hours long, it would be a stretch to have this wince-inducing dynamic make up the entire film. But Ade flips things intriguingly in the final act by having Ines (giving as superbly complex a performance as Simonischek) start to play Toni at his own game, as if doubling down on her father’s dares. It starts with her acknowledging her father as Toni when in company. Then she takes him on a fact-finding mission to an oil pump station, introducing him as a German associate of hers (in one of the film’s many comments on gender in the workplace, Ines gets taken more seriously in business when a man is with her). In one scene, which manages to fuse utterly hilarious and outrageous comedy with genuinely felt, rising pathos, a moment of complex and indefinable emotional release between the two seems to occur when they duet Whitney Houston’s The Greatest Love of All at a diplomat’s dinner gathering, Toni on keyboard, Ines warbling away with surprising commitment. The fact that Ines is prepared to engage with Toni on his level raises all sorts of new questions about the nature of their relationship, leaving you wondering if this isn’t some long running pattern of behaviour that has become mutually reinforcing. Is this Ines’s way of fighting her father, or admitting that he is right, and that she is risking her emotional health staying in a job where she faces sexism and morally dubious decisions every day? Are we seeing a unique manifestation of a shared depression? Maybe this is the only way this father and daughter couple can talk to each other at all; a complex dance of dare and pretend that is their way of showing their emotional truths. What ever it is, it helps make Toni Erdmann a truly singular piece of work.