Toni Erdmann

February 10, 2017
Peter Simonischek and Sandra Hüller in Toni Erdmann (2016)
Peter Simonischek and Sandra Hüller in Toni Erdmann (2016)

Toni Erdmann is a film destined to reignite that old question about the German sense of humour: “Do they have one?” It’s a stereotype Germans themselves like to joke about, in a not-very-funny way. On the evidence of Maren Ade’s long, unorthodox film it seems German humour is alive and well, although some viewers may find it hard to know when to laugh.

This rambling tale of a father playing pranks on his uptight, corporate daughter, filmed largely with a hand-held camera, is an example of the comedy of embarrassment – a genre brought to perfection by Ricky Gervaise in The Office. But Toni Erdmann also contains a deep strain of melancholy for the estrangement between generations, and for the ravages of corporate capitalism.

Our first glimpse of Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek) finds him playing a laborious practical joke on a courier delivering a package. The hapless postman looks on blank-faced while the skit falls flat, as do almost all of Winfried’s gags. His favourite, endlessly-repeated trick is to slip a set of bucky false teeth into his mouth.

A lumbering, shaggy grey-haired brute in his sixties, Winfried is a music teacher on the verge of retirement. We watch him striking another flat note at school, and then attending a party held by his ex-wife and her second husband.

The guest of honour is the daughter of the first marriage, Ines (Sandra Hüller). She is a high-flying corporate consultant in her late 30s, currently based in Bucharest. Ines spends most of the party on her mobile, and has to cut short the visit to race back to Romania on urgent business.

Winfried returns to his lonely existence, shared with Willi, a dog so decrepit that he has to be carried everywhere. The only other person in Winfried’s life is his elderly mother, Annegret (Ingrid Burkhard), whose views haven’t progressed far beyond the Second World War. When Willi finally expires, Winfried is suddenly free to follow his whims.

Cut to Bucharest, where he waits in the lobby of an office block, on the look-out for his daughter. He has come to pay her a surprise visit, although it’s hardly a pleasant surprise for Ines. For the next few days her carefully structured life will disintegrate under the steady pressure of her father’s anarchic humour.

When Ines takes Winfried to a function at the US Embassy, he bamboozles Henneberg (Michael Wittenborn) the CEO she is trying to impress. Her father weighs on Ines’s conscience, but on the other hand his very presence causes her savoir-faire to evaporate. She never knows what he might say or do next.

Just when she thinks she’s finally gotten rid of her nemesis, he turns up in a bar wearing a luxuriant wig and calling himself “Toni Erdmann”. Ines is pole-axed by this alter-ego, but Toni Erdmann will soon be seen everywhere, under different guises. He poses as life coach to Henneberg; an associate of business tycoon, Ion Tiriac; and even as the German ambassador. His conversation is one long stream of bad, deadpan gags, but because he immerses himself in the corporate crowd people seem to take him seriously.

Winfried’s absurd masquerade is calculated to expose the more sinister masquerade Ines performs on a daily basis, as she plays the handmaiden to big business, devising schemes that will throw hundreds of workers out of their jobs. She lives within a bubble of corporate prosperity in a dysfunctional, impoverished country. She sniffs coke, goes to expensive restaurants and night clubs. She may be in a glitzy job but her working life is coloured by a persistent, ingrained sexism, as when Henneberg expects her to take his wife out shopping. With a Romanian client she realises she’s taken more seriously with a man at her side, even if that man is Toni Erdmann.

Winfried is convinced that Ines is living a deeply unhappy and dishonest life. “Are you even human?” he exclaims at one point. As the story moves jerkily forward, she recognises the truth in this accusation.

Gradually Ines begins to crack. She inflicts a dose of sexual humiliation on a smarmy colleague who is a little too pleased with his prowess. With her father she is dragged along to a family’s private apartment, and induced to sing Whitney Houston’s The Greatest Love of All at full tilt. (An electrifying moment in the film!) Finally, a brunch she is hosting for friends and co-workers goes wildly wrong, when she wrestles with the zipper of a dress and decides to radically change the entire nature of the party.

Both Sandra Hüller and Peter Simonischek put in magnificent performances in the lead roles. Hüller has the perfect face for her part, playing the severe corporate maitresse, but with a sulky, adolescent vulnerability that keeps breaking through. Simonischek is a bear of a man, whose hulking physique makes his childish humour seem even more excruciating. There is a bond between father and daughter that transcends their differences, but it will not emerge without pain, struggle and sadness. It’s not just Ines that needs to find her soul, it’s the entire planet.

Toni Erdmann
Written and directed by Maren Ade
Starring Peter Simonischek, Sandra Hüller, Michael Wittenborn, Thomas Loibl, Trystan Putter, Ingrid Bisu, Hadewych Minis, Lucy Russell
Germany/Austria, rated M, 162 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 11 February, 2017