Love em or hate em, you can’t choose your family. And you can’t turn them away when they turn up unannounced and start grating cheese in their hair at your work functions.
There were several moments in Toni Erdmann where I was the only one guffawing in the movie theater. It isn’t a comedy for everyone. The jokes aren’t served on a silver platter. But the characters are refreshingly odd, the situations are awkward as hell, and the plot is highly unpredictable to say the least.
We all know those people in life that we label “workaholics”. They live to work instead of work to live. I’ve actually been a little bit guilty of this at points in my life. But usually, it’s because I’ve left everything to the last minute and I put my life on hold to get past the deadline. In doing so I always have FOMO (fear of missing out).
In Toni Erdmann, the main character Ines played by Sandra Hüller (Requiem, Lose My Self) is working, it seems, to avoid having a life. Her father, Winfried, played by Peter Simonischek (Oktober November, Gebütig) on the other hand, has made it his mission to provoke people to question their situations, by being a practical jokester.
Ines returns home to visit her family but spends all of her time on the phone preoccupied with work. One evening her father enters a family gathering with his face painted as a ghoul; he has come straight from work as a music teacher performing in a school show. It’s clear Ines and her father have grown apart, and neither of them understands each other anymore. From his perspective, his daughter is a stressed out unhappy workaholic, from hers, her father is an out-of-touch clown.
When Winfried’s dog dies the night after the gathering, he decides to surprise visit his daughter in Romania and spend some quality time with her. Unsurprisingly, she is less than happy to see him.
“How long are you staying for?” she asks. “I took a month off.” He says. She looks blank with shock. “Now that’s real fear!” he says. But is he joking?
He leaves a few days later to his daughter’s relief. But then suddenly, he’s back, as his alter ego “Toni Erdmann” (complete with business cards, a thick black head of hair and crooked false teeth.) Winfried’s a clown, but not a very good one. Half of his jokes fall flat or just made me embarrassed for him.
When he turns up at the bar Ines is at with friends, she’s forced to play along with the masquerade. He then works his way into her workplace as a ‘life coach’ and accompanies her during her day to day work.
I kept waiting for either Ines to crack and relax, or Winfried to give up and leave her to her uptight businessy existence. There was a moment where I finally thought “Oh, she is human after all, she does know how to have fun” when she meets a lover in a hotel room. But then she just instructs him to masturbate and jizz onto a petit four. Which she then eats. (Cos’ ain’t that everyone’s fantasy?) At which stage the movie gets more and more interesting / bizarre.
Toni Erdmann is ultimately a film about an adult father-daughter relationship. It’s about examining one’s place and purpose in life through comic intervention. It’s about still needing a father even though you’re grown up and have found your independence.
I really began to care for its beautifully detailed characters as they continually rub each other the wrong way, resulting in terribly anxious scenes. I had to watch these through my fingers as they covered my face.
I couldn’t help thinking while watching, what if my dad did that? How would I react?
There are so many absurd moments in Toni Erdmann. At times it feels like a desaturated, depressed version of a Michel Gondry fantasy. The third act plays out like some sort hallucinatory dream sequence involving folk beasts, a lot of non-sexual nudity and public singing. I loved it.