I went in expecting a simple comedy of errors, based on a retired father showing up randomly at different places just to cause annoyance to his daughter, or at least that’s what the trailers tried to make it seem like. The value of a good trailer can’t be underscored enough, and in this case, it succeeded. But Toni Erdmann surprised me in many ways, both organically and unassumingly.
The film starts with this one character, Winfried Conradi (played by actor Peter Simonischek) who chooses to call himself Toni Erdmann, it’s like his alter ego of sorts. You see him playing these innocuous pranks on various people, eg. in the opening scene, a courier delivery guy is subjected to his jests, saying that the parcel he is delivering contains explosives that he was expecting. This sets the tone for the rest of these very simple-seeming, yet exceedingly hilarious situations that Winfried creates/finds himself in.
If Winfried’s character is this unserious, retired guy, who tries to find humour in everything he does, we also have the other end of the spectrum in his daughter, who is a high performing corporate professional. She is burdened by life, the pressures of her work, and being this perfect corporate animal (interestingly her boss compliments her after a presentation that she is such an animal); German actress Sandra Huller plays Ines Conradi. She is the perfect stereotype of an overachieving millennial, who flies between world capitals conducting business. She has an assistant who is constantly trying to serve her well, a boss who is borderline patronizing patriarchal, and a male colleague who is threatened when a woman is in-charge at work, yet likes to have sex with her whenever possible. But in watching Ines, we know that she is on the brink and that she will cave at the slightest nudge. Interestingly, when Winfried decides to randomly show up at her office or at a restaurant where she is meeting friends, he seems like the only one she can vent to/at.
Reflection is not something Ines engages in and even when her father asks her life questions, there is this disdainful dismissal at the ignorance that parents are assumed to be suffering from. Winfried’s love for his daughter continues to tolerate multiple slights, and even when he is reminded that he is an embarrassment, his antidote to that is more humour.
While the main storyline was intriguing and curiously humourous, I was totally taken by the sub-plot/sub-text of the film. Ines is working in Bucharest, as she navigates trying to bring German rules and business ethics to a relatively lax work culture. But while she does that, the film takes you through the urban and semi-urban landscape of a country that has been in the EU just over a decade. The drastic difference between the two notions of Europe: West vs. East, Old vs. New are so brilliantly snuck into the narrative. The uptight German professional and her rowdy father’s foray into neighbourhoods, factory sites with accessible, yet stubborn Romanians, who don’t need to be told that their way doesn’t fit with forward looking globalization. These people are more than happy to invite you into their home and teach you how to paint an egg for Orthodox Easter, or take you into their humble dwelling and hand you the toilet paper kept on the side for guests, when you need to go.
The film ends with Winfried’s continued attempts to woo his daughter to less stressful shores. Maren Ade leaves little room for interpretation as Winfried responds to his daughter’s question, asked earlier on in the film, of what makes him want to live, what makes him happy. He summarizes that life passes by too quickly and rather too mercilessly, when spent playing catch up with activities of a material ridden life, chasing frivolous things. It’s the small things, says Erdmann, that mean something and stay with you, when you want to lean back into the past and try to relive it.
Toni Erdmann is now playing in theatres.