It would doing a considerable disservice to describe Toni Erdmann simply as a film “about a prankster father who tries to soften his uptight daughter” because this is merely the narrative framework through which writer/director Maren Ade explores a whole range of issues, not the least of which is the absurdity of modern life. Difficult to characterise, there is nothing else quite like Toni Erdmann in cinemas and that alone is something for which we should be thankful, even if it doesn’t always hit the mark. Whilst many have waxed lyrical about how funny this is – and there are some hilarious moments to be sure – the real strength of the film lies in the emotional undercurrents that run beneath the absurdist goings-on. Austrian actor Peter Simonichek plays Winfried Conradi, a divorced music teacher who frustrates his friends with his fondness for wacky humour, pranks and practical jokes. Winfried is particularly embarrassing in the eyes of his 30-something daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller), a corporate management consultant working in Bucharest whose current task is to assist an oil company in firing a significant number of staff in the interests of greater profitability. She is the exact opposite of her father; serious, emotionally distant and obsessed with achieving the recognition and success she craves at work, even though she doesn’t seem to particularly like her job.
With his dog having died, his elderly mother seemingly poised to follow suit and his ex-wife happily remarried, Winfried sets out on a trip to Romania in an effort to reconnect with Ines, but not before he produces a musical tribute for a retiring colleague in which his students dress as mummies and ghosts to perform a song that equates retirement with death. This is just the first of many moments of absurdity that come courtesy of Winfried in his efforts to bring joy to others, even if his efforts and not necessarily appreciated by those at whom they are targeted. His moments of humour are tempered by a deep sense of sadness and, as a viewer you find yourself torn; you feel sorry for Winfried but you understand why his daughter might find his behaviour embarrassing and certainly Ade had posited Ines as the villain of the piece, although I’m not convinced that her reaction to her father’s eccentricities is altogether unreasonable. Having initially ignored Winfried when he turns up unannounced at her work, Ines begrudgingly spends a day with him.
Believing that Winfried has returned home, it is to her great dismay that Ines discovers he is not only still in town, but has donned a dodgy wig and false teeth to repeatedly infiltrate work and social events as an alter ego Toni Erdmann. He introduces himself to her friends and colleagues as either a lifestyle coach or German ambassador and, with little option but to play along, a mortified Ines becomes progressively more stressed as she struggles to negotiate a major business deal amid the ludicrousness of her father’s antics. Among other indignities, poor Ines finds herself belting out an impromptu performance of Whitney Houston’s The Greatest Love of All to a room full of strangers and when she finally attempts to heed her father’s advice and lighten up, a hilarious birthday brunch ensues.
Ade is certainly in no hurry to tell the story and some may find the many elongated shots – in which nothing really happens other than silent contemplation and awkward unease – frustrating, but other than pushing the running time well beyond two and a half hours, these moments serve to demonstrate just how isolated our two characters are, not just from each other, but from the world around them. Winfried always needs to be performing in an effort to connect with others, hiding his true self behind pranks, makeup and costumes, while Ines buries herself in her work, desperate for recognition in a male dominated industry. It is an interesting dynamic because they each see the other as something they do not want to be, yet they are more alike than they seem willing to acknowledge. The performances from Simonichek and Hüller are terrific and Ingrid Bisu is also great as Ines’ put-upon assistant Anca. With Toni Erdmann, Ade has delivered a comedy that refuses to conform to any narrative or stylistic template; a melancholic musing on what constitutes a successful life.