Toni Erdmann (2016, dir. Maren Ade)
German music teacher Winfried Conradi is happy in his simple life, playing oddball pranks that no one actually falls for and just create awkward moments. His favorite prop is a pair of novelty teeth he wears and fails to get a laugh out of anyone. His daughter, Ines, is a business consultant working out of Bucharest, Romania currently trying to outsource labor for the oil industry. Winfried decides to surprise her with a visit and discover she not the sort of person he hoped she’d become. Ines has been consumed by her work and adopted a very corporate philosophy through every aspect of her life. The trip goes south when Ines sleeps through a meeting with a client because he father wanted her to get her rest. He retreats back to Germany and Ines goes about trying to salvage things on her end. But then man in a tangled messy wig and novelty teeth pops up calling himself Toni Erdmann. He claims to be a life coach and looks a hell of a lot like Ines’ father.
Toni Erdmann is being referred to as a comedy, but it does everything it can to defy many audiences’ expectations of what makes a film comedy. The traditionally set up and pay off formula for gags is not present. Scenes open without any clear sense of where we are going, and sometimes we get a pin on some moment. Other times the scene just ends, and we move onto the next one. This is all very intentional and not the sign of poor writing. Rather this is a deliberate subversion and makes the film a representation of everything Winfried is trying to do to his daughter. There are some scenes where he pulls the omnipresent novelty teeth from his pocket, pops them in his mouth, begins to play out a bit, and just as quickly slumps his shoulders, and the teeth go back in the pocket. He perpetually seems to be met with incredulity by Ines and her associates. An incidental laugh will occasionally occur but never for the reasons Winfried intends.
Ines is forever frustrated by her father and focuses on gaining the respect she believes she deserves in her very male dominated profession. Her adherence to stepping in line with Western capitalism elicits a quandary from her father about her humanity. That comes at a very tense moment and acts as the crux on which the film flips. She has tolerated him to this point but after this she tells him he must leave. Later, her boss labels her a feminist as he goes on about the direction he believes their business proposal should take. Ines replies “I’m not a feminist, or I wouldn’t tolerate guys like you.” This is less a commentary on a feminism than it is the way in which the world she finds herself is systematically erasing a sense of self. Every decision she makes is calculated based on the effect it will have on her career interests. Winfried seems to believe he can save her through his shtick and that eventually her shell will crack.
Toni Erdmann is a long film, just short of three hours. This is also a part of the subversion. Jokes are meant to be punchy and quick. The film, like Winfried, lingers longer than we expect it to. The awkwardness increases and we wonder when this nuisance will just move along. We also see Ines as the pestered working parent and Winfried as the obnoxious child fawning for attention. Through all of this subversion and intentional annoyance, there is a genuinely real story about parent and child trying and failing to reconnect. It’s a situation many of us have faced as we get older and find ourselves distanced physically, emotionally, and ideologically. Even the way the film brings about it’s “happy ending” doesn’t follow the conceits you would expect to see. Toni Erdmann is a truly bizarre but fantastic film that earns the “it’s not for everyone” motto.