“Not only does German humour exist, it might just save your life!” reads one of the review soundbites on the poster for Toni Erdmann. As well as being incredibly patronising to an entire nation of people and filmmakers it is also a short sighted and misleading sentiment; Look Who’s Back and Good Bye Lenin! are both very recent examples of daring, translatable comedy films born and bred in Germany. This lazy branding that has attached itself to Toni Erdmann since its rapturous reception, and subsequent shocking snub, at Cannes in early 2016 is, however, understandable due to its difficulty to pigeonhole and sell to modern audiences. By wrapping it up in the neat, seemingly eccentric, bow of “German comedy”, audiences now feel more comfortable choosing to see Toni Erdmann. But don’t be fooled because Maren Ade’s newest film is much, much more than just a barrel of laughs.
Using the modern, sleek, morally stunted world of European capitalism as a playing field, the film focuses on the duo of Winifred and Ines, a father and daughter whose relationship has become strained to the point of collapse. Ines, as career-motivated as they come, lives out a lavish but vapid existence in Bucharest and when her father decides to make a spur of the moment visit, he is disappointed to discover what appears to be an irreparable rift between them. Enter Toni Erdmann, Winifred’s maniacal, loose cannon of an alter ego, his long shaggy hair and false teeth just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to bridging the generational, familial and emotional gap between him and his beloved daughter. Whilst at first Ines is as confused as the rest of us in regards to her father’s actions, she soon gets sucked into his irreverence and a unique bond begins to grow between them for better or for worse.
A film’s synopsis can never truly capture a film’s mood. Upon hearing a description of Toni Erdmann, you would be forgiven for assuming its comedic tone and slapstick physical comedy would be at the forefront of the narrative. In actuality there is a stream of melancholic hopelessness running through a majority of the scenes and Maren Ade, a simply fantastic director of actors and a filmmaker who is unafraid to let her camera linger, achieves this despair so poignantly that it is hard to shake off, even when the laughs do start coming. No amount of false teeth and tall tales can obscure the fact that Winifred’s decision to visit Romania and earn back his daughter is facilitated by his best friend, a bedraggled dog, dying practically in his arms, forcing him to face his own mortality. When Ade shoots this scene there are no close ups of the dogs face, no twinkling piano keys, just chirping critics, deep breaths and unceremonious goodbyes. A little later on as father and daughter share an awkward goodbye hug and then have to wait for the lift to arrive before he can leave, you can see the desperation in Winifred’s eyes and you’re reminded of his loneliness. This scene should be funny, and may very well be to some, but it isn’t played for laughs, it’s played for character.
The film’s success takes root in the elegance of its narrative and the dedication that both Ade and her actors have to fleshing out her characters, not just on a base level but in the very essence of a scene. When all these elements come together so well, you begin to understand why Ade felt she needed a near three hour running time to make her film worthwhile, utilising all those static, persistent shots of Winifred and Ines to almost force the audience into connecting with them. Sandra Hüller and Peter Simonischek, both masters of stage rather than screen, carry the film wonderfully and if Ade is mostly responsible for the film’s pathos then these two bedevil it with their humour. A soon-to-be-classic scene of Ines belting out Whitney Houston’s ‘The Greatest Love of All’ at a stranger’s party as her father plays piano is both endearing and awkward, soulful and soulless, a prime example of the dichotomy that exists throughout Toni Erdmann and, to be frank, our daily lives.
Much has been said about Winifred’s visit being an attempt to ‘save’ Ines from her joyless and crushing existence in the cutthroat business world but there is no victim here, no one person in need of salvation. When Winifred confronts his daughter with the loaded question of “What makes you happy?” she fires it right back at him and rightfully so. As in Ade’s last film, 2009’s Everyone Else, the moral high ground doesn’t exist here. These are people who have lost their way and only the absurdist, Bunuelian and, yes, hilarious situations that they end up in can stun them awake from sleepwalking through their lives and being reminded of the human connections they have lost. Toni Erdmann IS a funny film but it is a rare instance of comedy as a narrative device rather than just a crutch and this is why it has so many people talking. It would be a travesty if we have to wait another 8 years for Ade’s next film but if it’s as well thought out and as resonant as Toni Erdmann, it will be worth it.
Toni Erdmann will be released in UK cinemas on February 3rd 2017.