“Toni Erdmann” is Very Funny yet Desperate Story
When stupid jokes can save your humanity and insanity
Watching Toni Erdmann is like searching humanity in the complexity of contemporary life, workplace, and family relationship. Everything that I see in this film makes me reflecting about all those things. Even though I can’t find the solution for my own problem, but Toni Erdmann is a more of the useful diagnostic tool for it.
The premise starts when Winfried played by Peter Simonischek visits Ines, who is played by Sandra Huller, in Bucharest. Ines is a serious and dedicated executive for a management consulting.
In the other hand, with the endless jokes, fake teeth, wig, monster costume and banal improvisations, Winfried introduces himself to Ines’s clients and colleagues as Toni Erdmann (inspired by Toni Clifton alter ego of avant-garde comedian Andy Kaufman), a desperate strategy to win his daughter’s soul back.
Both Toni and Ines come from desperate crisis in their life. Winfried has lost his mutt Willy and a piano pupil. He is sad knowing her daughter can’t visit the grandmother. While Ines is far to enjoy her life, too busy fighting her place in a real 24/7 nonstop capitalist lifestyle. Her ambition in getting the renewal contract with the hard client makes her difficult to have time with the family as well as herself. She pretends to be happy by having spa, but she can’t dogde the question from his father, are you happy living like this?
The film runs almost 3 hours long, but I never get bored of it. Maren Ade studies the characters very well. Not only the two main characters, she also invests in smaller roles that make them important in certain situations and affect both Toni and Ines’s reaction. It comes off the beat that always finds unexpected brought by the dynamic between 2 characters. As an audience, I always anticipate what comes next after a scene ended.
Ade doesn’t just suggest the story of a family relationship. She has a gift to plant multilayer idea in one frame. From German arrogant to international capitalism. Through Ines, I can see that the film also depicts how bad the office culture treats women that indulge conformity, even when her clients and boss belittle her dedication. But it’s different when Toni comes in, her boss and clients compromise the absurd performance and take it seriously. At this moment it may wind up a feminist token. But interestingly, Ines also part of the system and she also does a “hierarchy cruelty” to her assistant Anca. So I guess, it’s all about how the system corrupts a human soul. That’s why Winfried as a father once asked Ines, are you a human?
I’ve been always curious with Ade’s Toni Erdmann since it first appeared last year. Especially after the film is in competition at Palme d’Or Cannes 2016 and became the Oscar nomination for foreign-language. The film also won five top prizes at the European Film Awards and other festivals. Prior this, she already produced 2 other movies. Her debut feature was The Forest for the Trees in 2003 and a follow-up Everyone Else in 2009. Can’t wait to see Ade’s next feature after Toni Erdmann.