Film review | Toni Erdmann: A sentimental education

Toni Erdmann has charmed critics worldwide and swept up a generous array of awards following its debut at the Cannes Film Festival last year • 5/5

teodor_reljic
Teodor Reljic
21 February 2017, 8:00am
Peter Simonischek and Sandra Hüller play a distant-but-constricting father-daughter pair in Maren Ade’s critically acclaimed comedy Toni Erdmann
Peter Simonischek and Sandra Hüller play a distant-but-constricting father-daughter pair in Maren Ade’s critically acclaimed comedy Toni Erdmann
An old adage would have it that comedy is among the hardest things to do right, in any area of storytelling, which is made all the worse by the fact that the genre gets very little respect, comparatively speaking. Even William Shakespere’s own comedies can never hope to compete with his tragedies in our collective memory – Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet will always be the ‘time capsule’ plays; certainly not Much Ado About Nothing and Love’s Labour’s Lost. 

To stick to literary examples, the Man Booker Prize Award going to Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler Question in 2010 livened up this debate once again – proving that comedy getting top critical accolades remains something of a novelty in our culture. 

But we misjudge comedy at our own peril. More than just a source of easy laughs and amusement made-to-measure, comedy can undercut the pretentions and foibles of life in a way that powerfully reveals hidden truths. Where tragedy bludgeons us with an emotional overload, comedy tickles us into acute understanding. Like an orgasm, laughter leads to both pleasure and vulnerability – and the best comedy taps into this to reveal telling but not always comforting truths about ourselves and the world.

Written and directed by Maren Ade and starring Peter Simonischek and Sandra Hüller as a father-daughter duo whose distant relationship is clumsily shoved to more snug territory by the former, Toni Erdmann – which has charmed critics worldwide and swept up a generous array of awards following its debut at the Cannes Film Festival last year – is certainly a film that takes comedy seriously. 

Well-earned catharsis: Sandra Hüller
Well-earned catharsis: Sandra Hüller
Winifred (Simonischek) is an aging, divorced hippie with a penchant for childish pranks who is eking out a miserable existence as a piano teacher. His daughter, Ines (Hüller) is a seemingly successful and certainly busy consultant to an oil company based in Bucharest – a job that has plucked her from her native Germany and which is challenging her to consolidate the efforts of the multinational company she works for, and where she’s pressured to get their Romanian partners in line. 

Growing tired of their distant relationship following yet another whirlwind visit from his go-getting daughter, Winifred decides to pay a surprise visit to Ines in Bucharest. When his plan for enforced bonding fails, Winifred changes tack – and persona – by adopting a wig and fake teeth and introducing himself as ‘Toni Erdmann’ to Ines’ friends and colleagues… while a horrified Ines looks on as her father threatens to compromise her professional and social standing.

While this sounds superficially amusing and perhaps even creepy, what in fact develops is a touching study in second chances. For Winifred, this is something of a last-ditch effort to make up for any mistakes he may have made while raising Ines – his bumbling nature throughout suggests there may have been many – while Ines is suddenly given a chance to inject some humanity in her ambition-driven, corporate existence.  

Ade’s deceptively loose directorial style leaves plenty of room for the excellent performances by Simonischek and Hüller to shine through, building the film at a humane pace that ensures its emotional peaks feel entirely earned, and not forced into place by a script aiming for formulaic pressure points.

Unsurprisingly given the films runaway critical success, talk of an American remake, starring Jack Nicholson and Kristen Wiig, has already begun. Apart from the fact that Nicholson’s involvement recalls a similar role – About Schmidt – and hence is yet another reminder of the American film industry’s tendency to just repeat what worked in the past, one is quick to conjure up images of a truncated Toni Erdmann (‘Tony Hardman’?) drained of all unsettling ambiguity and world-weariness in favour of sprightly farce conforming to formula.

Because the original, the one we’re lucky to have with us right now, is a rather long film that more than justifies its running time with a humane portrayal of the father-daughter relationship that earns its emotional troughs by avoiding formulaic resolution. Ade’s film is also a triumph of the comedic idiom; mixing in pathos and irony in a way that feels like an organic extension of everyday life.

Toni Erdmann is currently showing at Eden Cinemas, St Julian’s

teodor_reljic
Teodor Reljic is MaltaToday's culture editor and film critic. He joined t...