Against all odds, the world cinema limelight was comprehensively stolen last year by a 69-year-old Austrian character actor in an epic situationist romp, who dressed up in a wig, phoney teeth and sometimes dark glasses that made him look like Bingo from the Banana Splits. Towards Christmas, critics who would generally rather hang themselves than be seen praising a comedy were rushing to do exactly this in the case of Maren Ade’s fascinating film about a fraught father-daughter relationship, Toni Erdmann, making it their favourite. Was this because it was a comedy that was long, in German and at Cannes? Not exactly. I suspect it is more because it is not really a comedy, despite some big laughs – of which more in a moment.
“How ill white hairs become a fool and jester” is the Shakespeare line that occurred to me watching Toni Erdmann for the second time, for its UK release. This subversive film suggests that maybe dark hair ill becomes a solemn young person, and, though it is embarrassing and inappropriate for old people to clown around, it is just as jarringly wrong for younger people to affect insufferable seriousness. Yet the film also suggests that comedy and laughs are themselves not necessarily a wonderful, life-affirming thing. They can – certainly in a family context – be a power mechanism, the means of wheedling, needling and passive-aggressive demands for emotional submission.
Peter Simonischek gives a superb performance as Winfried Conradi, an ageing, retired German schoolteacher whose friends, relatives and former colleagues have had to get used to his extraordinary fondness for japes and pranks and joke-shop false teeth. Without the wacky disguises, he has a strong, rather handsome face, but somehow you can see how that face is apt for exaggeration and inflation into a gargoyle; Winfried is a recognisable Jekyll to his alter ego, a hoax dress-up Hyde he calls Toni Erdmann.
At the very beginning, we see him masterminding a retirement concert for a former colleague, in which both he and the pupils are resplendent in Halloween-type horror corpse cosmetics, a giggling reminder to the retiree that this is just the prelude to death. Winfried has a difficult relationship with his elegant daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller). She is away from the country quite a lot, working as a management consultant in Romania and China, and her return for a family birthday makes their relationship even more frosty.
Put quite simply: Ines doesn’t find her dad funny any more. And this long delayed realisation is part of what triggers a mysterious crisis in Winfried, who also senses something unhappy and unfulfilled in her. When Ines returns to Bucharest for business meetings, she is astonished and a little scared to find that her dad has followed her there, like a stalker. He shows up at stylish bars and hotel lobbies, posing as his bizarre businessman alter ego “Toni Erdmann”, in a bizarre attempt to … what? Bully her? Make her laugh? Make her cry?
The embarrassment is total: she hurts his feelings by rejecting him, an outcome he was plainly trying to provoke. But his crazy, boundary-crossing silliness unlocks something in her. It cracks her carapace of professional steel, and she winds up singing Whitney Houston in public and hosting a cocktail party in the nude. Hüller’s performance is entirely sympathetic: vulnerable, human, in need of love.
It is a movie that has some of the bittersweet comedy of something like Jack Lemmon’s Kotch (1971) or Alexander Payne’s About Schmidt (2002), crossed with the confrontational freakery of Lars von Trier’s The Idiots (1998). Of course, it is a questionable cliche for films to imply that women without children who happen to be doing rather well at their job must be emotionally sterile and unfulfilled. Toni Erdmann arguably comes a little close to this. But it subverts the cliche by showing the dysfunctional father making this observation. Would Toni/Winfried have dared undermine his child’s professional standing if that child was a son?
Toni Erdmann is a long film. Writer-director Maren Ade has enough material here for an award-winning Netflix series, and sometimes it looks as if she just couldn’t bear to lose any of the uproarious scenes and situations that she had devised. But it never loses your attention. The ending almost made me think of Lear and Cordelia. Only it’s Cordelia who has to do the carrying.