Although underappreciated by the Cannes judging panel, Toni Erdmann thrived at other festivals, cleaning up at the European Film Awards and then being shortlisted for the foreign language category at the Academy Awards (where it should’ve won). There’s also talk of a Hollywood remake featuring Jack Nicholson and Kristin Wiig. Maren Ade’s film has been an unexpected success, and it’s easy to see why. It’s witty, subtle, offbeat and a refreshing break from the superhero films clogging up the cinema circuit. But it’s a film that’s hard to define and difficult to categorise.
The opening scene sets the mood. It’s a mood of bewilderment. What’s going on here? Is this a drama or a comedy? It’s deadpan, dry and clumsy. It’s not laugh-outloud, nor like any drama I’ve ever seen.
A postman arrives with a parcel at an average home. And an average man, Winfried, opens the door. But he informs the delivery man it must’ve been his brother that ordered the package. Now that his brother is out of jail he “does whatever he wants”. The postman nervously waits at the door while Winfried goes inside to find his brother, Toni, who emerges sporting retro sunglasses, terrible teeth and holding a banana; but Toni looks a little too similar to Winfried. The postman isn’t certain whether it’s a joke or something about which to be concerned. He remains as professional as possible, even after Toni says he’s really looking forward to “defusing it”.
Much attention has been given to the comedic elements of the film, but it’s such a hit because it takes the viewer by surprise. You never know when a joke is coming. It’s best viewed with the mindset of watching a drama and then being pleasantly surprised as the amusing scenes unfold. In this way, you avoid the disappointment associated with so many failed “comedies”. Films where you watch on, anxiously waiting to laugh, only to find the best jokes featured in the trailer.
The first act establishes Winfried as an easy-going practical joker. But he’s also a divorced music teacher with only one student and an ageing dog to keep him company. He’s a black sheep. His ex-wife now lives with a functional husband in a good neighborhood. Everyone takes what Winfried says with a pinch of salt. But when his dog dies and his sole student decides to quit the piano lessons, Winfried’s life crumbles. There are no more distractions. His loneliness is palpable.
There’s something genuinely sad and desperate about Winfried’s need to cling to his sense of humour as if it’s all he has left. But he finds a new distraction and opportunity when he tracks down his work-obsessed daughter Ines, who’s toiling away in Bucharest as a corporate strategist, and gives her a surprise visit to resuscitate their relationship.
The geographical change alters everything. From a world of tranquil suburbia, we’re thrown into the frantic world of sterile office buildings and over-priced, cosmopolitan restaurants and hotels. We get a glimpse of just how isolated and emotionless big-city life can be. Ines is as lonely as Winfried, if not more so.
But the visit could not have come at a worse time for Ines who’s in the middle of a negotiation with an important client. She’s also considering a new job in Shanghai. Life isn’t going as smoothly as she’d have her family believe. Winfried senses this, but Ines would never admit as much. She entertains her father a little but ultimately shrugs him off and gets him on the first flight out of town so she can concentrate on her life again. Or at least her work. And it nearly succeeds, Winfried leaves. But he has nowhere to go.
Enter Toni Erdmann, Winfried’s over-the-top alter ego. Spawned from desperation, Toni allows Winfried to break the shackles of their father-daughter relationship. Wearing a wig, his customary fake teeth and an iridescent jacket, Toni joins Ines’ group at a bar posing as an executive (and uber-eccentric) life coach that cruises around in a Hummer limousine.
Toni invades Ines’ life and puts her in awkward situations, assumingly to make her aware of how bizarre her life has become. But Ines meets the challenge head-on and involves Toni in the most contentious aspects of her life, like dragging him to a nightclub where drugs, excessive alcohol and gyrating Eastern Bloc entertainment are commonplace. He’s put in situations well beyond his understanding. He has no option but to continue playing his part.
It becomes a cat-and-mouse game. Who has the upper hand changes with every scene. The tussle reaches a (literal) crescendo and what happens next is as hilarious as it is charming.
The final act is as bemusing as the first. In one of the film’s standout scenes, and the funniest nude scene ever captured, Ines realises she needs a dramatic change in her life. She has nothing to lose… Things get awkward. And a touch creepy.
Despite its sporadic lightness in mood, the film explores some serious and poignant themes. It examines how families struggle to communicate and the disparity between free-loving baby boomers and the ambitious, always-connected modern workforce. It delves into the world of European capitalism and addresses corporate politics and the dirty tactics of corporations and their effects on emerging economies. It also explores petty power struggles and blatant sexism in the workplace. And yet none of these themes feel pushed down your throat.
But most of all it’s the duality in tone, always bubbling below the surface, that is one of the most intriguing themes. And why the storyline keeps your full attention for all 162 minutes. But far more importantly, this duality, or rather polarity, is also about exploring differing outlooks. It’s about people with opposing opinions and how they must learn to live with and accept one another, about how they need to learn to not just tolerate one another but to prosper together.
These are two characters that have opposing life views, are the opposite sex and are divided by a substantial generation gap. Ultimately, the only way for them to come together is to accept one another’s differences. It’s a significant message for the world at the moment. We shouldn’t insist everyone have the same point of view. And being unwilling to challenge and change your beliefs can be harmful and dangerous.
But on a more personal level, the film makes you realise that you’ll never find fulfillment if you think life is just a joke like Winfried nor if you take the world too seriously as does Ines. Happiness may just lie somewhere in between.