Oh Toni Erdmann, where oh where do I start? Maren Ade’s German language dark comedy, Toni Erdmann, is an exercise in sheer brilliance; outlandish, nihilistic and hilarious in its approach to the events surrounding the strange relationship between career-driven business consultant, Ines (Sandra Hüller) and her estranged father, Winifried (Peter Simonischek). This film was a complete breath of fresh air, somehow achieving the perfect balance between its endearingly bizarre, distinctly European sense of humour, and strikingly poignant undertones which consolidate its remarkable charm.
We are introduced to the character of Winifried at the film’s outset and there is an immediate sense of intrigue as to the eccentric nature of the character. The majority of the film’s events centre around Winifried making a spontaneous visit to Bucharest, where Ines lives and works. Clearly, he feels his daughter has lost her sense of humour, so adopts the titular Toni Erdmann alter ego in order to follow and embarrass her during events she attends for her work. The majority of the film’s comedy stems from these scenarios, with its sense of humour carrying the sort of absurd, outrageous quality which will perhaps divide opinion to some extent, but is undeniably creative and strikingly different from the swathes of middling comedy which are so commonplace in Hollywood cinema.
What I adored about Toni Erdmann was the way its painful and emotional moments were conveyed in such a way that simply didn’t require dialogue or explanation. This is partly a credit to the accomplished performances of Sandra Hüller and Peter Simonischek, with the pair bouncing off each other to create dark and cutting humour, as well as raw and palpable emotion which momentarily transcends the film’s comedic genre and depicts feelings and experiences most of us can probably identify with in some small way. Whether this is communicated through silent tears or seething faces, the film possesses a constant awkwardness, never falling into any kind of predictable pattern in which we as viewers are aware of what might happen next, or how the relationship between Ines and her father will unfold. This beautiful and, at times, heartbreaking exploration of family bonds and changing dynamics, combined with wonderfully cringe-inducing humour created a number of scenes that will stay with me for a long time. There is an inexplicable and overwhelming sense, when watching Toni Erdmann, of wanting to cry whilst also violently laughing (much like life, I suppose?).
On another level, the film becomes even more interesting through its study of the depersonalisation of work and the world of business, something the titular character appears to know all too well in his attempts to bring levity to his daughter’s life. Ade must also be commended for crafting multi-faceted characters as opposed to the tropes she could have fallen back on. Ines, for instance, fluctuates between states of embarrassment over her father’s behaviour, yet is also initially inclusive when he first joins her in Bucharest, determined not to deride him in anyway when socialising within her business sphere. In less considerate hands her character could have been overridden with the ruthless, emotionless ‘front’ stereotype which is typically associated with business people. Of course, such a character would never have worked for Toni Erdmann, which does not shy away from the difficulty of dealing with strained family relationships.
There is not one scene I would remove from Toni Erdmann’s near three hour runtime. Thematically refreshing and brimming with genuine, big laughs, the film is an absolute triumph and one I expect to visit time and time again. It’s deeply painful and emotionally-charged whilst simultaneously being farcical and silly enough to make you feel weightless. I’m truly in love with it as a film and can see it remaining a considerably important one in my life. It’s not often that cinema surprises me the way Toni Erdmann did.