Toni Erdmann isn’t a film that likes to make life easy for itself. The toast of Cannes is a German comedy, words not often seen together in the same sentence. It runs for nearly two and three quarter hours. And its two central characters aren’t especially likeable. So why is this the film tipped to win just about every major award this year for a film not in the English language?
There’s good reasons, but let’s get something out of the way first. This isn’t an out and out comedy. In fact, if director/writer Maren Ade had her way, the word wouldn’t be used at all. Yes, there’s a large helping of laughs – some out loud, raucous and earthy – but laugh a minute it certainly isn’t. The story of a practical joker father trying to re-connect with his workaholic daughter is more than tinged with sadness and even melancholy. Toni Erdmann himself doesn’t exist. He’s the alter ego created by Winfried Conradi (Peter Simoneschek), complete with grotesque teeth and an unconvincing wig, as his way of getting closer to daughter, Ines (Sandra Huller). And the film follows his attempts to re-build their relationship and her less than positive reaction to those overtures.
And you can’t really blame her. His fictitious creation, complete with shaggy hair and grotesque teeth that make him look like a cross between Les Sir Paterson and Frank, Donnie Darko’s favourite rabbit, claims to be a life coach who counts the CEO of Ines’s company as one of his clients, if you please. It’s typical of Winfried’s own brand of humour, which has always been at the level of a fart cushion – and yes, they put in the occasional appearance. But there’s a deadpan side to it as well, one that makes others uncomfortable in his presence because they never really know if he’s being serious: the more that spills over into his life in general, the more it’s driven father and daughter apart. And that style of humour is reflected in two of the most talked-about scenes in the film, the nude office party and the petit fours with the, shall we say, unusual garnish.
Ironically – and inevitably – they’re both a lot more alike than they would ever care to admit. Ines leads a solitary life, immersing herself in work and concealing her insecurities with a cool exterior: even her secret relationship with a colleague has to be timetabled to fit in meetings and presentations. She’s lonely and so is her father, separated from his wife and having just buried his much-loved dog. Yet they share an ability to make up outlandish stories about each other: she invents a whole new wife for him, he jokes about having a substitute daughter because “the cakes are better”. But each is making serious points about the other. It’s desperately sad.
With its corporate setting, lack of soundtrack and fly-on-the-wall camera work, Toni Erdmann often feels like the German equivalent of The Office. The meaningless corporate jargon is there as well: Winfried has no time for it and he uses it to make little digs at his daughter about her way of life. So much for building bridges. It’s not the only thing he misjudges. Hiding in her wardrobe and scaring the life out of her is another, as is constantly invading her working space – although how he always knows where she is and when we never discover.
Toni Erdmann isn’t all about the humour. Its comedy is most definitely adult, but Maren Ade regards the film as “sad”, “super-serious” even and that tone never goes away. If you want to put it in a box – which is what Ines would do – then it goes in the one marked “tragi-comedy.” Not so much a shaggy dog story, as a shaggy dad story.
Toni Erdmann opens in select UK cinemas from Friday, 3rd February.