In Toni Erdmann, a combination of daddy issues, Bulgarian masks and false teeth creates a hilarious story about a father and daughter struggling to make a connection.
Director of Photography:
Running time: 160 minutes
Toni Erdmann is in fact Wilfried Conradi, an elderly German man who tries to reconnect with his high-strung consultant daughter when his beloved dog and longtime companion, Willi, passes away. But don’t let this description put you off because this is one of the funniest films you are ever likely to see.
A lot of the humour has to do with awkwardness, and our laughter is as much the result of nervousness on our part as the expression of wide-eyed astonishment that the actors can stay unfazed by the unexpected drama around them.
Wilfried (Peter Simonischek) is a primary school music teacher who clearly has never given up being a child himself. The opening scene sets the tone perfectly, as a delivery man rings the doorbell to find Wilfried refusing to accept the delivery because his brother, “Toni”, to whom the package is addressed, has just been released from prison following a conviction for sending mail bombs. Moments later, Toni, with buckteeth and a very bad hairpiece, arrives to sign for the package, whose content we get to see only a few scenes later.
In the meantime, the stage is set for what would otherwise be a dour domestic drama examining the difficulty of reconnecting with one’s child as an adult. The child, in this case, is the 30-something Ines (Sandra Hüller), who is doing consulting work for an oil company in Bucharest and spends every moment of her birthday party talking (or pretending to talk) on the phone with business clients. She clearly has little patience for her the antics of her father, who arrives at the party made up to look like a zombie.
But then, something very mundane happens, and it changes everything. In an underplayed but devastating ellipsis, Wilfried’s dog dies in the middle of the night. The following morning, he ups and flies off to Bucharest, because besides him knowing next to nothing about Ines’s life, he now appreciates that this relationship should be cherished as long as they are both around to do so. The problem, admittedly, is that his daughter has neither the time nor the inclination nor, frankly, the social experience to extend a helping hand to her father and comfort him during this time of crisis.
And yet, from the moment he bursts into her carefully preserved house of cards in Bucharest, even though they are basically strangers to each other, and Wilfried’s presence is always on the verge of upending a fragile business deal, they cannot (and we certainly don’t want them to) let go of each other. Ines is so tense she looks like she is always about to have a nosebleed, and yet father, the ultimate foil, sits down on whoopee cushions in front of her colleagues and tells a major client he has decided to hire someone to play his daughter at home because Ines never visits.
Toni is an alter ago, but we get to know him much better than we do Wilfried, and that is the genius behind the film and behind Wilfried’s approach to Ines: These two may be father and daughter, but for whatever reason there is no way for them to relate to each other in the present, and therefore, the best alternative is for them to relate to each other as Toni and Ines. The resulting chemistry, with all its attendant reactions, is volatile but produces a combination so beautiful and rare we might as well be dealing with successful alchemy.
While some may balk at the running time, there is little drag, except for one extended car-bound conversation between Ines and her colleagues that could have been trimmed significantly. Whatever mystery Toni Erdmann has is tied to our awareness – and eventually, our giddy expectation – that the man with the bad wig on his head and the false teeth in his mouth may reappear at any moment.
All of a sudden, in the film’s final act, all the random parts suddenly unify in two unexpectedly brilliant scenes. The first is a musical number; the second, which involves a Bulgarian mask of sorts, flips the script with a scene that had the entire audience in stitches for a full uninterrupted five-minute stretch. Even more impressive is that this latter scene is punctuated by a stunningly poignant, emotionally devastating and indisputably unique catharsis.
The film may be on the long side, but its message is clear: Life is short, so make the most of it, because laugh and cherishing those close to us is a much better use of our time than pretending to be on a phone call to avoid speaking to those who love us and around whom we can be ourselves.
Viewed at the Be2Can 2016 Film Festival.