Maren Ade/ Germany Austria/ 2016/ 162 mins
At cinemas nationwide now.
Life is a lonely, alienating place. That may not sound like the ideal foundation stone on which to build a comedy, let alone a German one running close to three hours, yet Toni Erdmann finally rambles on to UK screens; as shaggy, idiosyncratic and ultimately lovable as the eponymous character.
“Toni” is the alter-ego assumed by lonely divorcee Winfried (Peter Simonischek) in an attempt to reconnect with his relatively estranged daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller), a consultant assisting companies outsource their workforce who is currently posted in Bucharest. Seemingly unflinchingly career-driven and emotionally frigid, she is, in her own way, as painfully alone and alienated as her father. The glass ceiling for females in the corporate world is as reinforced in Romania as it is elsewhere, and her male colleagues seem to prefer the company of “Toni”, despite the tacky suit, dreadful wig and false teeth as wonky as a cholera graveyard.
Many films would focus entirely on Winfried as the central character. Ade however, devotes just as much care and attention on Ines, and as such establishes their relationship with restraint, intimacy and exquisite pathos. Against this level of detail, and with a zealous adherence to the maxim of show-don’t-tell, previous events are hinted at but never explicitly referred to. We can guess why the slovenly old prankster may have ended up alone. We can infer the reasons Ines has chosen both physical and emotional distance.
Against this carefully constructed wall of melancholy, Ade is bold enough to hurl great trebuchet boulders of absurdist comedy. While many comedies would aim for wry, delicate humour for a more balanced overall tone – some of Alexander Payne’s finest would be good examples – Toni Erdmann goes for the mad, incredulous belly laughs and it works. The karaoke sequence, and a sublimely awkward party scene are flat out hilarious. They also make the stomach squirm like a barrel of eels at their cataclysmic awkwardness. This is partly down to two incredible turns by actors that entirely inhabit their roles, and Ade’s precise insistence in keeping the camera fixed on each event for a few seconds longer than is comfortable.
Here is a film that justifies its lengthy run time. It is utterly confident in its approach and its methods. Ade completely eschews easy answers and mawkish resolutions, and refuses to hold the hand of the audience. There is no swelling score to manipulate our sympathies in any direction. There are only two fully rounded humans learning to be in each other’s presence again. “Toni Erdmann” is a metaphor for the disguises we put on for the benefit of others; in our careers, our home lives, even the little deceptions and tricks we play on ourselves to convince ourselves we’re truly happy and fulfilled. Frequently heartbreaking and hilarious simultaneously, this is incredible film making entirely on its own terms.