Impersonation and improvisation are crucial to comedy. The very playfulness of the act is pitted on the performer’s ability to imitate and startle. It’s what stand-up audiences expect, albeit with varying satisfaction at curtain-call. It’s expected of sitcom and satire, and all the more rewarding in excess and without apology. I doubt these expectations get carried over to a German comedy film. In case of Toni Erdmann, they frankly should, as it’s this quality that largely defines the father and his alter-ego Toni Erdmann in the third film by the rising filmmaker, Maren Ade.
Ade is a film director, screenwriter and producer. Based in Berlin, she released her first feature film in 2003, The Forest for the Trees, about the difficulties faced by a young school teacher moving to a new school. The film was essentially an exercise in film training, as it was her film thesis for the University of Television and Film in Munich. Since then Ade has made two more feature films; Everyone Else and Toni Erdmann. Both films demonstrate the evolving sensibility of Ade – both comic and loaded, ambivalent and unabashed. At the European Film Awards, Toni Erdmann won a swathe of prizes, including Best European Film, making it the first time a film by a female director has won the top prize.
Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek), is a divorced music teacher stumbling through the days, adorably caring for his blind dog. He appears, and is somewhat presented, as a pathetic figure, the sort life has dealt mercilessly. Yet it’s his penchant for practical jokes and fondness for popping a pair of fake teeth in his mouth midway through conversation, that undermines his hopelessness. He secretly follows his estranged daughter to Bucharest, where she works as a consultant in a multinational oil company. It is in Bucharest that Erdmann comes to life, preying on his daughter and her colleagues he creates fanciful stories and orchestrates bizarre exchanges. Far from self-indulgent, and in proximity to his daughter, Winfried delights in Toni Erdmann, his comic alter-ego.
The effect has been phenomenal as the film has garnered critical acclaim at every international film festival, and lauded by audiences alike. I think it comes as a surprise to non-German speaking audiences; that is, not simply the idea of a German comedy film, but an outrageously funny one at that. In fact, when I mentioned going to see the film to my English parents, describing the film as a German comedy, the response was, “does such a thing exist?” I can now unreservedly say it does. The humour is subtle and situational, almost residual in that is builds up over a sequence of scenes. Laughter is so often the only reaction available.
Ade superbly holds the dull, disappointing relationship between father and daughter up against his daring acts of exaggeration. The movement from low to high, from drudgery to playfulness, has a cruelly comic effect. It’s a technique and theme pursued in her previous film, Everyone Else (2009). In this film, a German couple are holidaying in Sardinia – spent mostly lolling by the pool, having sex, and wandering through the surrounding dry, vegetated terrain. Chris is an architect, bookish and appeasing. He’s content to spend to the holiday in seclusion, quietly pursuing his interests and plans for a potential reconstruction in the area. Then there’s Gitta. Impulsive and playful, she’s desperate to not be cooped-up in the stifling villa of Chris’s mother, with its bizarre collection of colourful ornaments.
One scene masterfully illustrates their differences. Gitta wants to go to the local disco, childishly begging Chris to take her. He gives in eventually, yet once they are outside he become resolute and ambles back into the house. As they sit in the oppressively decorated room with the stereo, Gitta sits in fury and boredom. Feeling the need to placate her, Chris put on the stereo and performs a camp, frolicking dance before her. It’s remarkable that in only one scene Ade captures the rivalrous, adoring, combative, and longing elements of their relationship. Both Chris and Gitta are in a comic whirlwind of expectation and projections, intensified by a summer away spent exclusively with one another, removed from routine.
For Toni Erdmann, it’s not to say the film descends into flippancy, all out to make as many cackle and cry as possible. There is an element of humour as endurance, the bedrock when the securing structure of life shakes and turns into shards. But Toni Erdmann runs deeper. The father uses the fixture of the alter-ego to make fumbling attempts at reconnecting with his daughter. He encounters indifference and even hostility from her, yet continues to linger in the circles she walks, remaining hopeful.
Maren Ade has carved out an incisive, perceptive cinematic approach through which human relationships appear comic and bizarre, yet still deeply ambivalent. Her films are subtle and poignant, constantly at work to see what it means to connect, and stay connected to another person. As seen in her two most recent films, some go to great lengths to keep the taut life-thread intact, while others seem blithely unbothered by where they stand in relation to the meaningful other.
Words by Ryan Suckling
This article first appeared in print volume 88 edition 2 STOP