Milo Garner reviews Maren Ade’s hilarious comedy – which is currently one of the Best Foreign Language Film frontrunners at this year’s Oscars, and also had an English-language remake announced…
Toni Erdmann is a German comedy written and directed by Maren Ade. For some the notion of a German comedy might seem contradictory, and although there is a temptation to dismiss this hackneyed stereotype, it is actually the first German comedy to receive a wide release in Britain in fourteen years. But if any film were to break that barrier, it would be this one – an irreverent, funny, and surprisingly powerful farce that has, within months of its US release, already provoked an American remake. It’s that good.
The premise of the film is simple. Winfried, a divorced music teacher, decides to visit his estranged daughter Ines in Bucharest to rekindle their relationship. The twist is that Winfried has a penchant for practical jokes, especially those that make use of alternative personas. We follow Ines on her various business ventures as her father, under the guise of ‘Toni Erdmann’ (a man of many occupations), inappropriately appears at many of her meetings. This by itself works in the way a sketch show might, with various set-ups and gags waiting to unfurl. It could easily have been an ever-escalating farce in the vein of some Peter Sellers picture, but instead opts for a slightly different direction. One curious aspect of Toni Erdmann is its running time – clocking in at around two hours forty. For a comedy this is unusual (with a few exceptions, such as the infamously long It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World) and questions should rightfully be raised to whether it uses this time well; luckily, it does. The reason for this ties into one of its main themes, and it’s a big one – exploring the meaning of life.
Ines is a business consultant – a job notorious for its uncaring and harsh nature – and she has been outsourced to Romania to enhance business there (i.e. fire a lot of people). Her father quickly catches on to the fact that, caught in this grim occupation, Ines not only has no fun, but seems to care very little for her fellow man. After a charged scene at a spa Winfried decides it’s time to spark his daughter’s life back on track and so takes on the guise of Toni. He aims to show Ines there is more to the world than one business meeting and the next, even if his methods are somewhat unorthodox. By taking life less seriously, and by ignoring the cold boundaries of social convention, Toni embodies the opposite of what Ines has become. His key concern, and perhaps his vague answer to that meaning-of-life question, seems to be humour – throughout his various interactions with the people and places of Romania his common trend is to engage with the locals in a humorous manner. Importantly, whenever speaking to business contractors and the like this results in awkwardness, and often trouble, yet whenever he does the same with people in the country otherwise, there is a sense of friendliness and connexion. This connexion he earns in moments of irreverence seems to be greater than any Ines has achieved across her long stay in Romania, even with her apparent lover, and therein lies the problem.
This is where the run length comes into play. To really establish its thesis the film needs to spend a lot of time both on Ines’ joyless life and the appearance and effect of Toni, with the more important themes of the film slowly filtering through. The development of Ines’ character is gradual and subtle in many areas, yet is responsible for the film’s greatest comedic flourishes – for example, when she and Toni sing an impromptu duet of ‘The Greatest Love of All’ at a Bulgarian ambassador’s house (long story). This is where the casting of Sandra Hüller comes into its own (as it does in many moments), as she is an actress with a very serious face and manner, here being made to engage in a fairly involved moment of song in a truly Office-like moment of cringe-humour. Strangely the best way to commend this choice of actress is to deprecate the recent choice to replace her in the American remake, that being Kristen Wiig. Though Wiig is certainly funny and a talented actress in her own right, that she is actively funny actually works against the role – Hüller’s lack of overtly humourous acting is really what makes the character work, especially in the awkward moments. This also works counter to Peter Simonischek’s Winfried/Toni brilliantly, as he is an actor that exudes comedy at all moments, even without the film’s trademark wig-plus-protruding-dentures.
As might be apparent, the film punctuates itself well. Comedic moments make up its bulk, and emotional rests lie between these to affirm the relationships of the characters and to deal with the more serious aspects of its plot (a fractured relationship isn’t all fun and games, and Toni Erdmann resists becoming a total farce in respect of that). Considering the runtime this works excellently for the majority of the film, but there is a noticeable lag towards the centre, where the main conceit has already been introduced but the real comedic climaxes are still to come. Due to the loose narrative structure there is a feeling of aimlessness, if only for a little while, though in retrospect this is a minor issue at best. When measured against the aforementioned comedic climaxes, which are by far the funniest of the year so far, it’s hard to complain too much. Even the few jokes that don’t hit too well are overshadowed by everything surrounding them. But while considering parts of the film that don’t work so effectively, its formal aspects must be considered. Despite its clear ambitions and leftfield approach, Toni Erdmann is not an arthouse film, and nowhere is this clearer than the cinematography, which contains near no notable shots whatsoever. Even in terms of visual gags, the camera is at best functional – Tati it ain’t. While it certainly isn’t a film that really needs virtuosic visuals, some eye-catching cinematography could have helped buoy it in its slow moments.
By the time it concludes, Toni Erdmann proves itself to be an interesting beast, as its thematic power hiding in the background finally comes to the fore. This makes for a surprisingly poignant ending that won’t soon leave the mind, one that could just as well close out a serious drama as it does here a comedy. But therein is the strength of the film: it pushes its central thesis as a fairly serious and truthful object, while surrounding it with some truly great moments of pure comedy, and resultantly succeeds in both (sometimes considered contrary) aims. Though it might just (and only just) miss the status of an all-time great, it does prove that Germans can be funny, and very funny at that – let’s just hope the next one comes along a little sooner than fourteen years.
Toni Erdmann is out now in UK cinemas. See the trailer below: