Toni Erdmann

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Tuesday January 10, 2017

Peter Simonischek stars in 'Toni Erdmann'
Peter Simonischek stars in 'Toni Erdmann'  

Ready for some dry, ernest, and unflinchingly straight-faced German comedy?

Well, there is such a thing, and Germans do it better than anyone else -- and better, for that matter, than they do stupid teen comedies (for example of how Germans fare there, take a look at "Manta, Manta") or over the top romantic sex romps (like, for instance, "Maybe... Maybe Not").

"Toni Erdmann" wavers between the low-key absurdity of a Christopher Guest film and the dry specificity of a Brit-com, but keeps its Teutonic laugh meter stubbornly keyed to its deepest and darkest, setting. Not everyone will understand that this is a comedy... and I'm guessing only a scant minority will actually laugh out loud more than a handful of times... but this film is a master class in how to take the ridiculous and make something sublime.

The film's location is Budapest, but where it really takes place is in the dead zone of broken relationships. Ines (Sandra Hüller) is a determined young woman making a career in a tough, male-dominated business environment -- the worst sort, a consultancy that essentially helps big businesses strip their work forces down through heavy outsourcing. As Ines puts it, their job is to be the bad guys who later get all the bad press when the layoffs begin.

Winfried (Peter Simonischek) is her father, a happy-go-lucky sort who's reached an age where "happy" is now more like mourning and "lucky" is all a matter of what you're comparing it to. Just as determined as Ines, though in his own way, Winfried plays absurd practical jokes on everyone in his path, starting with a beleaguered UPS deliveryman. His japes often include a set of abominable novelty dentures, to which he adds an absurd wig and a dark purple suit jacket that looks like something from a sleazy lounge act.

When Winfried comes to Bucharest to play Ines a surprise visit, his timing turns out to be bad. Ines is in the middle of some delicate engineering, becoming the best faux friend of a company CEO and his wife. Her larger purpose is to sell the CEO on a drastic jobs-reducing scheme. It's all business, and only business, but it's such soul-killing stuff that she's all but shut herself down emotionally; Winfried is so alarmed by the way Ines is suffering and not even conscious of it, that instead of going back to his home village of Aachen as scheduled, he sticks around Bucharest, dons his fake teeth and wig along with a new pseudonym -- Toni Erdmann -- and begins infiltrating his daughter's life from all sorts of unlikely vectors, posing here as a life coach with ties to important businessmen and pretending there to be attached to the German embassy.

No one actually believes any of his outrageous lies, but he goes about his fraudulent business with such a mixture of style and pathos that people find themselves playing along -- including Ines, who allows herself to be cast as "Miss Schnuck," the secretary of "Toni Erdmann." (When need be, the roles switch and she passes him off as a work colleague.) It's partially a game of make believe between a little girl suffocating inside the hard shell of a contemporary woman and her big-hearted father, but it's also, to some degree, a case of folie a deux, and it's not necessarily true that when the two are apart they recover themselves and act like rational human beings.

If anything, Ines becomes less and less well-adjusted; in one fairly explicit passage, Ines coaxes her horny boyfriend (Trystan Pütter) to tend to his own sexual gratification while she watches. When she brings a petit four into the bargain, what should be shocking or erotic turns out to be neither. In the same way that the film's humor is deeply covered over by sadness, eros is quashed by a certain stripe of jaded discontent, and nothing -- not even the way droplets of semen go flying off the petit four when Ines snatches it up and bites into it -- jolts the sense of deadness and frustration that permeates the scene.

Obviously, nothing men come up with... literally... can faze Ines, and yet what good does it do? She might be the boss in the bedroom, but in the boardroom it's a different story: During meetings with her team and with clients, Ines is still reduced to a game of dancing around her own words and meanings, re-tailoring her ideas and positions on a pfennig so as to continually match the wishes and beliefs of her male colleagues. If you made a whole film from this single sexual adventure, it might be titled "Two and a Half Shades of Blue."

Writer-director Maren Ade never compromises, and never allows the film to spark into more familiar comic brightness. Even the most lowbrow antics -- the way Ines' boyfriend hops around a club with a bottle of champagne tucked to his crotch in a phallic gesture, dispensing champagne with the zeal of a frat boy, or, later, a joke by Winfred involving handcuffs that misfires -- remain grounded in a miasma of exasperation, rather than striving for shrill hysterics. That's a relief; it's also a revelation. Inevitably, a whoopee cushion makes its appearance, and then we know for sure that in its ability not to break out into a clownish smile, but rather contain everything in a grimace, this is that rarest of comedic achievements: Humor that derives from bile and hopelessness while floating above bitterness.

But once ensconced in such a maze, how do you find your way out? That's the trick. Ade finds the answer to this conundrum -- it's outrageous, of course, but treated with the same grave solemnity as the rest of the movie. Crude humor paves the way to an exorcism of sorts, and the hijinks glide to graceful closure.


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Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.