Toni Erdmann (2016)

Toni Erdmann

A feelgood father-and-daughter comedy, Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann sees the joylessness of the corporate world undone by paternal clowning.

Fun Theory

by Alexa Dalby

Toni Erdmann

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

The idea of a Germany comedy that’s nearly three hours long could seem daunting, especially as it’s the story of a father using practical jokes to rescue his high-flying daughter from the soulless corporate world she’s moving in. However, Toni Erdmann, though a slow-burn, is ultimately insightful with a few farcical laugh-out-loud moments.

Veteran Austrian theatre actor Peter Simonischek is Winfried, an impossible middle-aged divorced music teacher, always up for something he thinks is humorous, though his friends and colleagues don’t necessarily agree. His only daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller) is a stressed-out oil company consultant in Bucharest, permanently tied to her mobile, joylessly competing as a female executive in a businessman’s world. Dismayed at the life he thinks she’s leading, Winfried takes a holiday and turns up unexpectedly at her workplace. His visit is intended to try to get her to lighten up, but it doesn’t work out as he planned and they fall out. “Are you happy?” he asks her, but she doesn’t understand the question. He apparently leaves to go back home to Germany – only then to turn up wherever she goes, gatecrashing events she’s at, disguised in a fright wig and comedy buck teeth, posing as a life coach called Toni Erdmann, and thus rather stalkerishly infiltrating her work and her social life.

He’s both well-meaning and also very irritating, and at first she resists his efforts. But he’s maddeningly irrepressible, and bit by bit the hollowness of her corporate life is revealed. It’s a long film which builds slowly, but it’s worth it for two scenes. At a private party ‘Toni Erdmann’ puts Ines in an embarrassing position in which she’s forced to sing a Whitney Houston number. She starts off shakily but as she starts to loosen up under her father’s influence, she eventually belts it out tunelessly but with great gusto – so much so that the audience at the screening at the Cannes Film Festival spontaneously broke into applause. And there’s a hideous team-building brunch Ines is obliged to host in her flat, where at first it seems she is having a kind of breakdown but which in fact escalates surreally into a naked party.

Director Maren Ade (Everyone Else and Gigante) captures the unequal pressures on a female executive – the need to be extra-assertive, to be one of the boys – and also the strangely disconnected international expat lifestyle, removed from real life, centred on luxury hotels. Bucharest has the largest shopping mall in Europe, Ines says, when she has to take a visiting wife shopping, but no-one in Romania can afford to shop there. And the ridiculous comedy false teeth which Toni Erdmann keeps permanently at the ready in his top pocket prove to be a significant prop in Ines’s feel-good catharsis.

Toni Erdmann was screened in Competition at the Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Fipresci prize, premiered in the UK at the 60th BFI London Film Festival, and is released on 3 February 2017 in the UK.

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