“Do you want to ruin me or what?”
The opening scene of Toni Erdmann sets out to test our patience. A delivery man rings a doorbell and waits. Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek) finally answers, surprised by the sight of a package. He suggests it must be more erotica ordered by his brother. Winfriend closes the door, the delivery man stands puzzled, then opens the door once more. This time he’s in disguise as the sibling, wearing veneers and sunglasses and handcuffs. Winfried is a bona fide bullshitter, rambling along through his near retirement life by pulling pranks and jokes at every opportunity. It’s a dry setup and a tactic that cues us into the picture’s dark and awkward sense of humor. Toni Erdmann – a 162 minute German film that’s a tried and true tragicomedy by its very definition – reminded my Type A personality that in some circumstances it’s best to be laissez-faire, release the reins, and to just not give a fuck. Maybe tragedy plus time really does equal comedy after all.
Winfried is a victim of time. He can only spend so much of it with his elderly mother, his old dog, or teaching disinterested music students the art of the gag. Winfried’s puzzling case isn’t that of dissociative identity disorder either; his mock-up personality as Toni Erdmann – using calculated gestures, a Just For Men dyed wig, and those protruding fake teeth – becomes a father’s act of desperation to connect with his daughter. She’s Ines (Sandra Hüller), a consultant in the oil industry, always on the phone and uptight and automated. Their relationship consists of his puppy dog eyes being paused by a hushing glance and upright index finger. Ines is stressed to the max and on the verge of securing important contacts, which makes her father believe it’s the perfect time to deploy the Toni Erdmann persona. Their head-butting becomes a familial jousting match, striking knockout blows and inside joke laughs lance after lance after lance. Toni Erdmann is painfully funny, embracing the dread and the fear and the silence of comedy. I think that’s why the film is so hilarious; it’s intimately evocative and intrusive, like a parent reading a child’s journal. You know the right thing to do is to put it down and allow for privacy, yet you can’t help but to take a peek at what’s inside and laugh at how ludicrous it is.
Writer/director Maren Ade makes proficient use of (and a seemingly purposefully inefficiency) the run time, allowing herself the breath to tell long-running jokes within a long-running story defying a single culture or language. Toni Erdmann relishes in the eccentricity and unbelievability of its early 90’s American cinema pen pals while maintaining its own European maturity. The film is multi-cultural, bilingual, and practices a Pollock-esque art of living. A spill here, a splatter there. Almost defiantly different and unique. Have you ever seen the ’94 movie My Father the Hero starring Gérard Depardieu and a young Katherine Heigl? Well, Toni Erdmann unfolds as a sort of, “my father the anti-hero.” Winfried initially haunts his daughter’s ambitions but eventually helps her to express her own unhappiness, and does so by taking on a less rambunctious and imbecilic Drop Dead Fred imaginary personality to provide the kind of unharnessed imagination sorely missing in the life of a woman who’s so controlled and structured. Toni Erdmann is deeply symbolic, inescapable, and uncomfortably comfortable in its own thick hide.
There’s a nearly palpable mastery to what Ade achieves in the third act as Toni Erdmann leans more and more towards exaggeration. In a turn of events, Ines invites coworkers over for a little wine and cheese party. The catch? They can only enter if they’re stark naked. It’s a scene bearing the same DNA as the late great Federico Fellini’s famed orgy sequences, simmering with vitality and acting on pure instinct. Then Ines opens the door in the buff, Winfried lumbers in wearing a traditional kukeri costume, and their polarization opens the gate of their respective minds. Only when he’s fully costumed can Winfriend be himself. Only when she’s completely naked can Ines shed her workaholic contrivances. And as they embrace, you quickly realize that this is a film about the ever growing gaps between people – especially family and friends – and the drastic lengths we must take to rekindle the affection and kinship with those we love. Toni Erdmann alerts us that being seen is as equally important as seeing others.
“Don’t lose the humor.”
Rating: 4.5 out of 5