It’s so rare that a comedy can last for over two and a half hours but still be funny. New film ‘Toni Erdmann’ by German director/writer Maren Ade achieves this by building in both a tender story of a father-daughter relationship and scenes which become increasingly surreal/bombastic as the story progresses. Big lumbering Winfried is a divorced retiree and notorious prankster amongst his friends and family. He often uses the corniest tricks like wearing goofy glasses, ratty wigs or crooked false teeth to elicit a weary chuckle from those around him. When his adult daughter Ines returns home for a brief visit, he sees how uptight she’s become. She constantly makes work calls, dresses conservatively and has little time for her father’s pranks. The emotional disconnect is palpable. When Ines goes back to Bucharest where she lives and works, Winfried follows her there. He inveigles his way into her private and work life using the pseudonym Toni Erdmann and pretending that he’s a quirky flatulent businessman/diplomat. A series of wildly funny, cringe-worthy and awkward scenes ensue as Ines tries to carry on despite his intrusions.
What is so charming and engaging about this set up are the fluctuations of power play which take place in this father-daughter relationship. Ines wants to be taken seriously and lives like how she believes an adult should. Her time is filled with trying to advance in her job by sucking up to clients, partying with friends/business contacts and belittling those who work beneath her. Toni arrives in her life like an agent of chaos showing how shallow and ridiculous her pursuits are. Equally, Ines tries to show her father how immature his behaviour is and attempts to prove what an adult she is by acting out sexually, taking drugs or playing the diva at a spa. These battles between family members who desperately try to prove something to each other feel very real and touching.
It’s impressive how this film keeps you on your toes uncertain where it’s going next. Many scenes have the feeling of being improvised because of the thoroughly convincing performance from the actors who really look mystified about what’s happening or how to react when something highly unusual happens. I was surprised to learn from the Q&A with two of the actors at the London Film Festival screening I went to that the film was completely scripted and heavily rehearsed! Winfried (played by actor Peter Simonischek) gets a bewildered look in his eyes at certain points and holds his body as if he doesn’t know what he’s going to do next: continue the joke or fess up and go home. Also Ines (played by Sandra Hüller) maintains such a serious composure when faced with disruption that when she finally cracks at some points it feels wholly shocking. But also the script was obviously tightly written to make it feel like the characters were making spontaneous decisions.
I can’t express how involved the entire audience was at the screening I attended. There was a lot of audible laughter, gasps and winces at the outrageous scenes which gradually unfolded including karaoke to a Whitney Houston song, lewd acts with petits fours, a big hairy costume and a non-sexual naked office bonding party. ‘Toni Erdmann’ manages to be both genuinely heart-warming and brilliantly funny. I’ll be shocked if this film doesn’t get a best foreign language nomination at next year’s Oscars and it may well win the award. If you get a chance to see this film, I highly recommend it.