Toni Erdmann (2017)
Firstly, some context – German cinema can be considered a trailblazer in many respects during its long and illustrious history, as the cradle of such epoch defining talents as Fritz Lang, Murnau, and Pabst, or more recently the post war new-wave of Herzog, Fassbinder and Wenders, to name just three. When you cast your eyes over these figures and historical movements there is one function and formula which doesn’t exactly spring to mind – rib-tickling, grin inducing comedy. A little research on my part hasn’t exactly excavated a vast, untapped chasm of Teutonic titters, although to be fair Fack Ju Göhte looks like it might be worth a watch, and Goodbye Lenin made some waves during its release back in 2010. That is pretty much it as far as I can see, until a modest film was revealed at Cannes last year which has upturned the nationalistic nerve of accusing the krauts of having no sense of humour. As I’ve mentioned here before the marketing for Toni Erdmann didn’t exactly molest my funny bones, so as usual I have been ignorantly bemused by its steep ascendancy to perhaps the most acclaimed film of 2016, featuring in the ascendant of hundreds of critics, academics and film industry professionals all over the world. Still, I am humble enough to accede to my elders and betters, so when a special advance screening and post viewing Q&A sprang up in the esteemed Curzon Bloomsbury I snapped up a ticket, eager to finally see what all the fuss was about. Rather than director and screenwriter Maren Abe being frozen in the spotlight the Curzon have secured the services of Austrian actor Peter Simonischek for their promotional parade, he plays the titular character in this frankly bizarre but repeatedly amusing oddity, one of most original films I’ve seen for quite a while.
When we first meet Winfried (Simonischek) we quickly process that he’s something of an eccentric of advancing years, a pithy prankster, as he imitates a disheveled unabomber clone while collecting a ticking parcel from a confused delivery man in the film’s opening scene. It is quickly ascertained that he is a part-time teacher, divorced but remaining cordial with his ex-wife, and warmly tolerated by the members of the community and his extended family whom roll their eyes in mock-exasperation at his silly jokes and foolish personas. One family fissure strikes a genuine raw nerve which can’t be concealed with well-intentioned levity, with Winfried’s uncomfortable relationship with his high-flying corporate daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller) a source of regret between the two. She is constantly on the mobile while negotiating a particularly sensitive deal on behalf of her consulting company, a Romanian outsourcing scheme which inevitably lead to redundancies that the cowardly CEO is anxious not to be publicly responsible for inflicting. After Winfried’s unexpected visit to Romania where Ines barely has any time to spend with her father he unconventionally adopts the wig-couiffered, false teeth sporting persona of Toni Erdmann, professional life-coach and possible German Ambassador, and inseminates himself into her corporate circle to the bemusement of her unsuspecting colleagues and friends. The results, as they say lead to hilarious consequences, in an embarrassment of situations which are not a million miles from the cringe-inducing chortles of The Office or Curb Your Enthusiasm…….
Toni Erdmann wasn’t quite what I had in my mind when I sat down in the opulent surroundings of the Renoir Screen Numero Uno, and thankfully, having slept on it I’m quantifying that statement in a throughly complementary fashion. As expected the film begins as a rather straightforward dramerdy, the clear spine being the lukewarm, stilted relationship between an emotionally estranged father and daughter, warily circling each other and yearning for a deeper connection but unsure how to broach their shared apprehension. After establishing the initial story contours however the film pushes off into an almost Dada influenced farce, an occasionally hysterical playground with bizarrely comic interludes and incidents. Two scenes in particular are spectacular specimens of the comedic form, quite unlike anything I’ve seen at the cinema for quite a while, and judging by the raucous reaction of my fellow patrons I wasn’t the only audience member throughly smitten with the droll absurdity. Technically the film is a straightforward affair, organic coverage captured in wandering hand-held close-ups, with a specific lack of any manipulative soundtrack or diagetic interference, letting the intrinsic comedy ooze through from the situations and reactions rather than signposting reactions through editing or punchlines. I’ve never seen either central performer before so there is no screen baggage to weigh down their performances, and they are both throughly convincing as two lost souls slowly acclimatizing to a new phase of their father / daughter relationship, and beautifully playing it straight no matter how absurd the circumstances.
I am utterly baffled by some of the readings I’ve gleaned from some social media streams for this film, specifically those interpretations citing Toni Erdmann as some sort of political riposte to our recent political turmoil, an analysis which I cannot detect at all. Yes, there is some sly undercurrent of corporate satire running beneath the absurdity, an examination of the modern office culture which inflicts such anxiety and distress on its drones at the expense of genuine, warm human interactions, a reduction of all discourse to commerce if you will. Extrapolating that further to encompass wider contemporary concerns seems like a stretch, it doesn’t need any deeper analysis other than a face value appreciation of a frequently hilarious, original and highly touching if slightly overlong (160+ minutes) movie. During the Q&A Simonischek came across as a cheery and avuncular fellow, explaining how they suffered numerous takes and were encouraged to improvise by their brilliantly precise director, during a challenging but rewarding shoot. He also explained how some of the particular strains of humour had been carefully researched – and I have to dance around some certain plot points here – but a certain, erm…well, ‘creature’ is culled from a Romanian fable which signals the waning of winter and the coming of spring, a symbol of a rebirth and new horizons which slots neatly into some of the characters evolution and growth. This is an almost unique offer, it’s difficult to parse with any recent film in terms of intent and tone which I suspect is why it has generated such international affection, and while it wouldn’t have charmed its way into my top ten I am curious to see it again and assess how some of the nuances and performances may be reinterpreted and assessed a second time around. So much cinema, even of an international variety follows formula so it was refreshing to be blessed with a story which was largely unpredictable, apart perhaps from a final conclusion which cleaves to the usual mandate of character growth and life lessons learnt. Now, after this highly amusing aside I will go and check out what’s been happening in the news and international affairs before resuming the fetal position, and be sure to continue the whispered moaning and praying that this is all some feverish nightmare, I mean you’ve got to laugh….right?;