“What do you find worth living for?”
If you had to sum up the premise of ‘Toni Erdmann’ in one sentence it would be ‘Prankster dad creates an outrageous alter ego to help him reconnect with his hard working daughter’. It sounds like a naff comedy that would probably feature Adam Sandler. ‘Toni Erdmann’ is not that film. Instead its an almost three hour long German comedy… Have I lost you yet? It sounds like it shouldn’t work but it really really does. It’s a subtle, regularly moving and funny movie that ends up being immensely reflective observation on the nature of happiness. The laughs aren’t that of a typical Hollywood comedy – they aren’t hard or fast, there’s often a gap between each one and whether you find them funny truly depends on your sense of humour. For me the sixth laugh test was passed easily and one sequence towards the end had me gasping with near hysterical laughter.
Winifred Conradi (Simonischek) in a short space of time has become a music teacher without a student and a dog owner without a dog. When briefly reunited with his daughter Ines (Hüller) he quickly becomes concerned about her, the amount she works and how unhappy she seems. A spontaneous visit doesn’t really work out for either of them so he leaves then renters as Toni – a life coach with a dodgy black wig and dodgy bad teeth. How he impacts her life through a series of exchanges that bounce around the awkward scale (some scenes you can watch easily, some through your fingers and some as your fingers & toes curl up in ultimate cringe) is far from conventional. Don’t expect him to wave a magic wand in a fairy godmother manner and fix things – this film is far too clever for that kind of fairytale. The things that happen are believable, heartfelt and told with a lot of truth.
The message is clear, nuanced and not presented in a manner that will beat you over the head – do what makes you feel happy. The only person who will care about our decisions in thirty years time will be ourselves – shouldn’t we do all we can to make that care more about nostalgia than regret? It’s not about serenading a room of strangers with ‘The Greatest Love of All’, engaging in a sexual encounter involving petit fours or posing as a Bulgarian Kuker. It’s about making choices that will create that little bit of happiness that makes things worthwhile.
The film doesn’t try to make such thought process easy and relishes exploring the awkward dichotomies that arise. There’s the tensions between generations, classes and nationalities. As awkward as some of his social exchanges get there’s something truly admirable about Winifred – his ability to live in the moment. Ines doesn’t have that, her face spends most of the time folded in anxiety or in an attempt to conceal any other emotion. All of their interactions are told tenderly and with care, often moving in terms of their naturality and honesty.
The film is unlike anything that is currently in cinemas at the moment. In fact there’s not much cinema like it at all. A film this life-affirming is a real rarity. It’s surreal, strange, delightful and totally unforgettable.
P.S – The end credits are exquisitely soundtracked by The Cure with ‘Plainsong’. The metaphorical cherry on the icing of the cake, perfectly chosen to encapsulate the emotions of the film.
‘Toni Erdmann’ opened in UK cinemas on 3rd Feb.
Year: 2017 Run time:162 minutes Dir: Maren Ade