German film ‘Toni Erdmann’ is wonderfully wacky, both strange and insightful, and also very funny, as it follows a strained father-daughter relationship. Winifried Conradi (Peter Simonischek) is the father, an eccentric, practical joke obsessed piano teacher. Those around him often seem to fondly yet tiresomely putting up with his jokes, kindly tolerating them. His daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller) is a corporate businesswoman, working on an outsourcing project in the oil industry in Bucharest, Romania. After the death of his pet dog, Winifried spontaneously travels to visit her, hoping they’ll reconnect. His unannounced visit doesn’t go down well with his stressed-out daughter, and he soon leaves, only to later comically remerge in costume, wearing a freaky wig and false teeth, and going under the name of Toni Erdmann, posing as a CEO’s life coach. He takes the embarrassing dad role to a whole new level and to hilarious results. Ines is mortified, but eventually finds herself playing along with his pretence.
Ines’ parents are divorced, and we get the sense that Winifried has perhaps been rather absent throughout her life, or that they have drifted apart. As he arrives at his ex-wife’s house where Ines has come home for her birthday, there’s that awkwardness that anyone with an unconventional family set-up will relate to. While Ines may have once enjoyed her father’s silly jokes and pranks as a child, she now finds them highly irritating. However, her frustration with him isn’t just one sided. They both seem to continually disappoint each other and find fault with the other’s way of life. Ines is deeply embarrassed by her father’s antics and questions his lack of ambition, while Winifried casts a critical eye on her corporate lifestyle. In many ways they are opposites; she is rather serious, he is completely silly. “Are you even human?” Winifried blurts out at one point, clearly wounding her. They both mean well and feel affection for one another, but more often than not their interactions merely result in exasperation.
Director Maren Ade superbly handles the film’s tonal changes, going from contemplative discussions between Ines and Winifried to gentler, sadder scenes that highlight their unhappiness, as well as crafting brilliant and highly memorable comic scenes, all the while moving effortlessly through these tones. This never feels jarring, instead these all intermingle in nuanced ways – there is humour in the sadness, sadness in the humour, and truth in all of it. In disguise as Toni, Winifried invades Ines’ life in some truly cringe-worthy scenes: a dinner with friends, a function at a bar, and even at her office where he gets out a whoopee cushion. A great scene that is both very funny but also rather wonderful sees Ines getting roped into singing a song with him at a party – Whitney Houston’s cover of ‘The Greatest Love of All’ – where she suddenly lets loose and gives a powerful and liberating, if ridiculous, performance. This character development from cold and reserved to becoming bolder and rather exhibitionist as she starts to go along with her father’s pranks plays out brilliantly. Unfulfilled and dejected by her job, Ines seeks escape in his amusing and zany ruse, and the two finally seem to connect. Winifried’s character also contains deeper layers, with a sense of loneliness beneath his irritating wind-ups and embarrassing dad jokes, but also a lovely sense of openness to the world and compassion for others.
The film also provides an interesting commentary on European society and economy, with Ines planning to make workers redundant and the film lingering on shots of Romanian poverty. It also paints Ines’ world of business as draining and rather unfulfilling, as well as exploring gender dynamics in the workplace, with a revealing scene showing how Ines is taken more seriously when she has a man by her side, even if he is completely ridiculous. ‘Toni Erdmann’ is a completely unique film, taking a simple examination of a father-daughter relationship and turning it into a zany, hilarious, oddball delight, while also capturing Ines and Winifried with great insight and nuance.
Watch the trailer below:
‘Toni Erdmann’ is out in cinemas in the UK from Friday 3rd February 2017.