Toni Erdmann is a hysterically funny film that proves how sometimes it just takes your dad in a bad wig and false teeth to reveal how life is passing you by.
Please note, this review was originally published as part of our London Film Festival coverage in October.
Having already just sat through American Honey, which at 2 hours 42 minutes is well on the chunky side (unlike its hand-to-mouth characters), it was with strong, caffeinated butterflies that I sat down to watch Toni Erdmann, a 2 hour 42 minute German-Austrian film about a father who adopts a crazy, gaudy alter ego to bring some joie de vivre to his daughter’s life.
I didn’t want the film to end. That’s seriously high praise for a film where 10 minutes are wholly dedicated to a character making a presentation about how efficient it would be to outsource the assets of an oil company. In fact, there were many scenes that in any other film would have been painfully dull or irrelevant. Yet in Toni Erdmann, every scene, no matter how innocuous-looking, masterfully illuminates a new aspect of the film’s two main characters.
In a way, it’s a film of two parts: before Toni and after Toni. Winfried (Peter Simonoschek) is an old music teacher with an old blind dog, who amuses himself by scaring the postman by pretending to be twins, one of whom just got out of prison, serving time for posting mail-order bombs. Winfried is light-hearted and easy going, although Simonischek’s performance suggests underneath the gregariousness, there is a melancholic, contemplative soul.
Winfried’s daughter, Ines (Sandra Hüller), on the other hand, is serious and hard-working – so hard in fact that even when she isn’t working, she is pretending to be working – if only for the sake of appearances. Winfried’s paternal instincts tell him Ines is deeply unhappy with her life – or at the very least focusing on the wrong things. Too much of work and not enough of ‘life’. When he visits Ines, he doesn’t get through to her. Asking if she’s happy seems only to irritate her and Winfried is too bumbling to clearly express his concern for his daughter.
Enter Toni Erdmann, a confident businessman, freelance coach and occasional German ambassador. Toni is Winfried with false teeth and an awful wig, but the beauty of the film is that, while it’s obvious that Winfried is Toni and Ines knows this, she plays along and lets Toni into her life. Why does she do this? It’s not clear if Ines even knows.
Toni Erdmann is a deceptive film, for all its incredible humour, the underlying themes of sadness, loneliness and depression are palpable throughout. The more Ines plays along with her father’s alter-ego the more she accepts him – in many ways more than she was ever willing to accept her father. She takes Toni to nightclubs, business meetings and site investigations.
Toni sees sides of Ines that Winfried could only have feverish nightmares about: he witnesses her take drugs, meets her inane lover who will put you off French biscuits for ever, and plays the piano while she sings ‘The Greatest Love of All’. It’s amusing to us, but seeing his daughter like this leaves Winfried distraught. Sometimes it’s evident that Ines is doing this to shock her father, but more often than not, when her tears become too much to hold back, it’s clear that it’s a cry for help, literally.
It becomes a vicious cycle where neither party is willing to back down yet both unsure why they’re persisting. This refusal to desist results in arguably one of the greatest, ludicrous and boldest house parties ever thrown. It’s funny, shocking, heartbreaking and repulsive and raises a lot of questions.
Has Winfried created Toni to help his daughter? Is it really an act of paternal altruism or does Winfried need Toni more than he knows or cares to admit? Is the film really about a father helping his daughter or about a man running away from his own problems?
These are the questions that percolate long after the film is over and speaks volumes of its brilliance. The truth of the matter is that no review can truly capture just how bold, wonderful or ridiculous Toni Erdmann really is. The 2 hours 42 minutes just flew by. 5/5