As Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonschek) answers the door to the mailman, before transforming into his Toni Erdmann persona just to freak out the postie, Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann sets out its stall early as a painfully awkard cringe comedy about loneliness. Not long after this encounter, Winfried’s only piano student gives up on his lessons, to which Winfried can only offer a half-joke, hiding his very real pain beneath a veneer of forced humour. Boldly sad for an ostensible comedy, Ade’s film looks at how we try to fill the voids we can find inside of ourselves, whether it’s through jokes, or endless work, and does a fine job of it, even if I found it a little sparer on laughs than I’d have liked.
Winfried is a semi-retired teacher, spending his days looking after his mother as well as his elderly dog. Immensely bored, he’s created the character of Toni Erdmann, a character he commits to with ridiculous intensity. Wearing clown make-up to school, hiring limousines, and pretending not to recognise his own daughter are all vital elements in bringing Toni to life. Now, with Winfried’s daughter Ines (Sandra Huller), clearly working herself into an early grave, all the while missing opportunities to see her family, Winfried has a mission for Tony – to try and bring some semblance of silly joy back into Ines’ life.
Working at a consultant company, Ines is stationed in Bucharest, trying to finalise a high-profile restructuring of a Romanian oil firm. As such, the majority of the father-daughter bonding takes place in Romania so, despite Toni Erdmann being a deeply German film, about half of the dialogue is in English. Business talk pervades plenty of scenes, and Toni’s puncturing of this self-seriousness when he joins Ines on an impromptu visit prove the character’s value early on, even if his insistence on silliness can also make him deeply annoying.
Simonschek and Huller do sterling work with characters that aren’t inherently very likable. Winfried’s Toni character is often insufferable, and he deliberately takes his jokes too far, and seeing as the absurdity of Toni means the joke is never at his own expense, his comedy sometimes feels cruel. On the other hand, seeing self-important corporate types cut down to size is consistently satisfying. Meanwhile, Ines gets furiously defensive when asked if she’s happy or how her life is going, wilfully blind to how miserable her work and awful colleagues make her. Being able to imbue these characters with real pain is vital to making them sympathetic, and both leads manage this with skill.
However, despite skilled character work and a deep look at how sadness manifests in the middle class, Toni Erdmann’s comedy side feels less effective than its drama. This may be because I simply didn’t get much of the humour (plenty of other audience members were in stitches throughout), but until the final set-piece, the jokes just didn’t really connect particularly well with me. Luckily, towards the end there’s an amazingly farcical party scene that manages to maintain a consistent hilarity throughout, really lifting your spirits just before the credits roll.
Ade’s main success is in, along with editor Heike Parplies, perfectly pacing the whole film. 160 minutes fly by without the film ever feeling anywhere near that length. Even though the action is limited to few enough places that the audience becomes completely familiar with them, Ade keeps the story moving at speed so you never feel like you’ve overstayed your welcome in any of the locations. Shot in a handheld, cinema-verite style, everywhere from the Bucharest hotels to oil fields to suburban households feel real and lived in.
This is helped by the striking decision to not use any sort of score. Scenes in clubs and at parties use diegetic music, but otherwise all you hear is dialogue and the excellently realised sound design. Taking the most uncomfortable sounds of everyday life and amplifying them ever so slightly creates a world even more shift-in-your-seat embarrassing than the real one, an incredible feat if ever there was one. Not as funny as early reviews had made it out to be, but moving and witty enough to tide you over until the knockout finale.