Toni Erdmann is perhaps one of the most surprisingly enjoyable films of 2016. On paper, the film, directed and written by Maren Ade, sounds like a slog: it is a nearly three-hour-long German comedy about a layabout father who upends his uptight daughter’s life by visiting her unannounced, and tormenting her with painfully unfunny gags that would befit a character such as David Brent or Michael Scott from “The Office.”
Yet, Ade pulls these elements together into a movie that is not only a touching story about a father and daughters’ relationship, but a surprising critique on corporate culture and the Germanocentric structure of the EU.
Toni Erdmann initially trains its focus on Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek), an aging, goofy music teacher who finds joy in trying to startle and prank people with props such as a pair of false teeth that he carries around or with halloween facepaint. The opening scene features Winfried abusing a poor delivery boy by insisting that the package being delivered was in fact for his (fictional) twin brother, Toni Erdmann. He then proceeds to close the door, have a staged conversation with Toni (himself), only to return to the door in a long black wig, a new outfit, and a self satisfied grin claiming to be Toni. The pained expression on the delivery boy is humorous enough, but it’s offset by the following series of scenes in which Winfried drops by his ex-wife’s house to discover that he hadn’t been invited to an early birthday celebration of their daughter, Ines (Sandra Huller). This sort of transition happens repeatedly throughout the film. Every time Toni Erdmann feels as though it is about collapse into a screwball comedy, Ade gracefully drifts back into a sobering reality.
This balancing act becomes all the more impressive when one considers the amount of ground that Ade manages to cover. Winfried chooses to follow Ines back to her workplace as a consultant to a German oil company operating in Bucharest, Romania. Winfried becomes our window into the corporate establishment as the focus shifts away from him and becomes more concerned with the life of Ines. He dons his black wig and takes on the identity of Toni Erdmann, following Ines from one corporate meeting to the next. As he follows her around a standard day of business, we observe her be belittled by her superiors and forced to be twice as aggressive as her male counterparts to be heard by her boss. For that extra show of force she is branded by her coworkers as “an animal” in the boardroom. Ines’s self-assured nature that she displays at home contrasts with loss after loss in the workplace. It’s cutting commentary on sexism’s sustained existence in corporate cultures. The criticism takes the audience by surprise after they’ve been continually lulled into a false expectation of humor. Meanwhile, Toni Erdmann’s arrival to these events contributes to Ines’s growing frustration and the general sense of chaos.
The film ponders another socio-political criticism in the free market economics of the the European Union. It doesn’t pull its punches in juxtaposing the decadent lifestyle of Ines and her counterparts with the relative poverty of the Romanians. Ines and her peers eat out constantly, live in luxurious apartments, and occasionally do cocaine (to Winfried/Toni’s cautioned fright). We get a very different view from the Romanian world in the film’s background.
Looking down on Bucharest from their skyscraper, the German businessmen and women can see abandoned construction projects and derelict buildings. As they drive into the country to visit the site of an oil field, the streets are arun with stray dogs. At one point Winfried/Toni wanders out of the tour party to find a bathroom. A local allows him to use his restroom, only for Winfried to discover a lack of running water.
These scenes of abject poverty pair well with discussions of German business interests, and the potential of laying off Romanian workers to increase German profits. The dissonance of German profiteering off of Romanian resources is soundly felt, and is only amplified by the recent backlash against globalism and neoliberal economic policies.
That being said, what makes Toni Erdmann such an incredible experience is that it manages to make these criticisms of these huge, ingrained structures while maintaining its core as a comedic film about an uptight daughter who’s estranged father is striving to reconnect with her. The film’s socio-economic criticisms are subtly embedded into what is really just a father-daughter comedy.
Though one could stress the less comedic features of this film, it shouldn’t be forgotten that this film is joyfully laughing all the way through. Sandra Hüller in particular turns in a career defining performance. It culminates in Ines reluctantly belting a cathartic rendition of Whitney Houston’s “The Greatest of Love of All” in its entirety because her father had told a group of Romanian orthodox Christians that he was the German ambassador. The scene borders on the surreal as the audience is subjected to this bizarre, uncomfortable, and, to be frank, mostly well-sung performance. It is in no uncertain terms a showstopper.
As Toni Erdmann proceeds, it constantly unfolds new and unexpected developments and ideas while never losing sight of any of the balls it still has in the air. No matter how disparate and broad the elements may seem, it never once loses a sense of intimacy.
Photo: A scene from “Toni Erdmann” (Source: IMDB — Komplizen Film).