Writer-director Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann operates based on a sitcom premise that then develops to become a story about existentialism. A hard-working businesswoman, Ines Conradi (Sandra Hüller) has no time for her father Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek), an old man who still uses false teeth, whoopi cushions, and wigs to make jokes, but after both her birthday, for which he was unprepared, and his dog dies, he decides on a whim to visit her where she works in Bucharest. Over the course of his visit, he develops a character he uses to interact with Ines’ peers: “Toni Erdmann”. The name comes to represent the aspects of his personality his daughter thinks are the worst.
The reason development occurs where it normally wouldn’t is because it has the time. At two hours and forty minutes, it feels as though the story begins, ends, begins, and ends again. There are redundant scenes, and scenes that play like setups you assume the filmmakers will pay off, and then they don’t; however, most of them are enjoyable enough they warrant a spot in a comedy, and they often provide characters with abnormal depth.
Much of the comedy that arises can only be labeled as such if you are willing to laugh at and embrace the most uncomfortable of situations. For example, Ines hosts a party in her apartment, and when the first guest arrives outside her door, she’s only in her underwear. She must decide if she wants to dress first knowing the guest might leave. So she answers the door as she is. Through a series of broken telephone, many of her peers show up at her door with gifts and in the nude, having heard it’s the only way to gain entry. The nudity isn’t blocked whatsoever. Both men and women are on full display.
Moments of intense sadness shoulder those of comedy. Winfried and Ines are so separate in their beliefs and personalities they throw deep jabs at each other and then hesitate, not the other way around. After witnessing a brutal verbal spar between Ines and her work associate, Winfried asks her if she’s human. Later she explains in no uncertain terms she doesn’t care about him.
At the route of their relationship is an inability to express themselves. That inability just manifested itself in two different ways. In Winfried, he attempts to express himself in jokes that are not funny. Ines found a role through which she can deliver cutting statements and have it “just be business”. When it comes to emotion, they fumble. For example, after Winfried finally leaves, Ines gets together with her girlfriends and they compare bad weekends. Ines unflinchingly expounds on her awful father and their time together – and then the man ordering a drink from the bar turns around and it’s revealed it is Winfried, or should I say Toni Erdmann. He joins Ines and her girlfriends as Toni and digs deeper into her life like a splinter. They never speak about what she said, but they come to speak about life, and what they want from it.
If he’s aimless and if she wastes her time working towards something instead of living in the present, are they wasting their lives?
None of these are new questions, but by exploring them through a situational dramedy they themselves take on a new life.
Photo Courtesy of Diciu on Morguefile