Toni Erdmann is not real. The fact of the matter is that sometimes, practical jokers never actually grow up, and they become parents who annoy their children. The comedy directed by Maren Ade opens with a delivery: a middle aged German man named Winfried Conradi goes to fetch his brother, who he says the box is for, named Toni. According to him, Toni has been on house arrest. From behind the closed door, Winfried and Toni argue. A man who is clearly Winfried is in costume as the fictional Toni, arrives at the door, gross, and complete with handcuffs. The entire movie is built on the awkward, sudden, and bizarre sense of humor that exists in Winfried’s mind.
One big question I have coming out of the film is of its length. How much is too much? Is it purposeful when a comedy built on awkward lingering humor and bizarre, sudden changes in tone, goes on for almost three hours? Is it a comedy if it tackles so much in drama?
Well, for one thing, Toni Erdmann highlights the awkwardness of conversation, influence, and attempts to connect with others. The film is translated from the multiple languages spoken, mainly German, and features English as a middle ground for Europeans. In this way, it forces the audience to confront humor that is both lost in translation and that is universal. It also recognizes the difficulties of family, who we often find we can’t live without (despite our best efforts). Winfried is an eccentric, made awkward by his emotional distance from others—serious moments are quickly diffused by a set of fake teeth—making it hard for him to understand when he has crossed boundaries, especially with loved ones. These boundaries are crossed most often with his daughter, Ines, a hard-working consultant who works out of Bucharest.
Ines works all the time. As a consultant, Ines is constantly trying to appease other people who want to be won over, to extend her contract period. The film shows their differences not only through their behaviors, but also through their appearance. Her father Winfried is a stereotypical music-teaching nerd, relaxed, with an ever-present pair of front-connecting eyeglasses, with a limited budget but an unlimited imagination. He wears an iridescent plum suit as Toni, and often wears button-up shirts that seem just a few hours past their ideal cleanliness. He is unpolished, but raised a woman who wears pantsuits, climbs the corporate ladder, and declares herself to not be a feminist. Her conservatism is a seeming rebellion from the oddity of her father.
Ines is generally professional, excepting the moments in which her father suddenly intrudes in her life. After Winfried’s dog dies, he turns to his daughter for comfort. She tries to be accepting, but he needs to have an audience. Upon his first venture to her workplace (without her knowledge), he tries to disguise himself as a client alongside her, but not be so hidden that she doesn’t see him. Winfried thinks he has failed and is disappointed until she doubles back without her clients to greet him. This forms the basis of their back and forth until he must go home.
But wait, there’s more! He doesn’t go home, he transforms into his alter-ego, Toni Erdmann, a sort-of life coach for businessmen. None of this is a spoiler, there is just a solid hour of film before this major action occurs. If you like watching someone work in a corporate environment, trying to come up with strategies, and talk about outsourcing, then maybe the first hour won’t drag. Her father lights up her boring, run-of-the-mill life like a bolt of lightning. Except that lightning bolt keeps striking in the same place, regardless of the presence of a storm cloud. He’s about as useful to her work life as a power outage.
However annoying he may be to Ines, he is still her father. Even though she pushes him away through her obsession with her work and he pushes her away through his jokes, they have a connection that is undeniable. Even when she isn’t in the mood to laugh, he always finds a way to surprise her, and the audience.
I don’t even know what jokes I could use as an example of his humor, because it feels like that surprise is itself an element of the humor. Other elements in the film include a lot of nudity and a little sex, but the two are not necessarily simultaneous. It’s not a movie that I would take my parents to, but Ines pushes her father to see what lengths she goes to for her work. He comments that she seems to have no joy, so he provides it for her.
The actor behind Winfried/Toni, Peter Simonishuck, is brilliant in his distillation of a man to gestures, background performance, and deadpan. His daughter Ines, played by Sandra Hüller, plays the patient daughter, who waits to see where her father’s mind is taking him before she acts. At one point, he jokes that Ines is his replacement daughter, a stand-in for the real one. It is a film without malicious undertones in the family dynamic, but it doesn’t present perfection in the end, either.
Toni Erdmann is at times perplexing, uproariously funny, and at times a bit sad. It appreciates father-daughter relationships in a way that Hollywood will surely copy in the coming years, but it likely won’t be a true copy, as the sensitivity shown in Winfried is often absent in American major films. If it wins the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, I wouldn’t be surprised, but it may not translate into American success.