Toni Erdmann is a tough film to explain. It aims to confound, to discombobulate, to make you laugh and wonder what exactly you think is so amusing—to re-evaluate things, in short. That’s the goal of both the film and the title character, a parody persona adopted by an eccentric divorced dad to both repel, and earn the love of, his disapproving daughter. Maren Ade’s comedy sounds actively repellent on paper—it’s from Germany (not a country that produces a lot of crossover comedies), it’s nearly three hours long, and it centers in part on the westernization of Europe’s eastern bloc by insidious, but bland, capitalist consultants. So why is it so unbelievably funny and heartwarming?
It’s because Toni Erdmann is legitimately unlike any comedy I had ever seen before, as hyperbolic as that may sound. Describe it in passing, and it might sound like many a fuzzy Hollywood affair, a tale of a prankster father and straight-laced daughter learning to reconnect (in fact, its rumored American remake may well end up in that lane). But Toni Erdmann draws so much of its humor from refusing to cut away from a scene that might seem irrelevant or boring, or to land on an easy punchline. It’s some new, evolved form of awkward comedy that doesn’t strive to make the audience wince, but rather lives in every joyously strange, unsettling moment.
To summarize the plot of Toni Erdmann would be to spoil some of its juicy surprises. It would also take a while, since Ade’s film is not only very long, but also steeped in tiny details, taking stock of two people’s day-to-day lives with occasional flourishes of absurdity. It follows Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek), a divorced music teacher living in Germany with a penchant for old-fashioned pranks, often involving a set of ridiculous fake teeth and other wild costumes.
Winfried is semi-estranged from his daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller), a high-powered business consultant currently posted in Bucharest, Romania, where she’s assisting in the creeping privatization of the country’s oil industry. He decides to visit her and be his usual annoying self, confusing her co-workers and clients with his pranks and generally serving as a bother. After a while (this is a long movie, so it really is a while), he leaves, and rather than follow him back to Germany, the film lingers with Ines, steeping the audience in the particulars of her job and her inter-office politics for another 20 minutes or so.
It’s so mundane that it feels bewildering—Ade skillfully gets the audience to actually pay attention to what Ines is up to, to begin to understand the tedious, sophistic details of her work, and her strengths and defects in the workplace. You’re glued to the action precisely because you cannot figure out what is going on—when the next twist is coming, what happened to Winfried, and whether or not this film is going to return to the strained father-daughter relationship it seemed to be using as a plot foundation.
It does eventually do that, but as with every story turn in this film, the manner in which it happens is hilariously disorienting. As already mentioned, Winfried has another personality he occasionally inhabits, a man named Toni Erdmann who serves as some parody of an eccentric tycoon, and Toni begins to spend an uncomfortable amount of time in Bucharest. If Ines and her company represent the grinding gears of westernization in a country still defined by the collectivization of its Soviet past, Toni Erdmann is some funhouse-mirror vision of the future Ines is helping to build. He’s an uncouth, shambling character, but he’s one that always commands the attention of every room he’s in, simply because of his bizarre, assured confidence.
This is not to say Toni Erdmann is explicitly political. The moments spent looking at the minutiae of Ines’s work life are fascinating precisely because they’re so granular; Ade is happy to let viewers pore over whatever interests them most and set aside the rest. It’s a film about how a powerful woman navigates the workplace, but one that doesn’t pass judgment about how she does it. The movie takes an almost sick pleasure in the absurdities of modern life, even when they border on the tragic.
Toni Erdmann builds to an incredible finale—a set piece that pulls together all these disparate themes into a outrageous piece of high comedy, a hilarious shattering of bourgeois norms that feels like something out of a Luis Buñuel film. Then it keeps on going for another 15 puzzling minutes, rather than capitalizing on its transcendent climax. The movie is subversive to the last, finding laughs by taking life as it is, from slapstick hijinks to dull boardroom meetings—making it a truly original comic experience.
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