Film Review: the hilarious and challenging Toni Erdmann

Despite plenty awards, it took a while for this film to be released in the UK. “Toni Erdmann” premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in April 2016.  Since the start of February 2017, it can finally be admired in the UK.

The sensation already started at the festival. “Toni Erdmann” had been accepted for the “Un certain regard” section, which is special but less prestigious. Just before the Cannes Film Festival press conference, word got out “Toni Erdmann” was suddenly competing for the coveted Palme d’Or. From then on, this German-Austrian comedy started to conquer the world and raking in awards.

toni-erdmann-2Do not be fooled by the word “comedy”. It certainly is a comedy, but of the dramatic, serious, posing questions and holding up mirrors kind. In many countries, this is considered an art house film. Also don’t expect an easy evening and happy end.

One of its themes is a difficult father-daughter relationship, apparently partly auto-biographical. Another one concerns personas and masks. The audience is introduced to main character pa Conradi, when a postman delivers a package at an ordinary German home.

A man of a certain age and somewhat gone to seed, opens the door. After a chat, he shouts for his brother. His brother must have ordered a package. After a few minutes, the “brother” turns up. He’s half naked, sporting handcuffs, bad teeth, dark glasses and what may be an SM outfit. This is one of Mr Conradi’s persona.

A few scenes later and Mr Conradi visits his mum to leave his old dog with her. Mr Conradi is off for a performance with his music and drama group. They look like Kiss. From the performance, Mr Conradi goes to a party – without removing his make-up, of course.

At the party is Mr Conradi’s daughter Ines. She works as a consultant for an international firm in Bukarest. She’s trying to get an oil company to outsource and fire employees. But at the party, she hardly interacts with anybody and even refuses to have breakfast with her grandmother. Ines is glued to her mobile phone.

Some time later, Mr Conradi’s dog dies. Upset, he takes time off and travels uninvited to his daughter. Unfortunately, his world and her work don’t mix.

He detects she is not really happy, but after a disastrous weekend, is asked to leave. Ines meets with friends and tells them she has just survived the most awful weekend in her life. Ines doesn’t realize Pa may have disappeared, but Toni Erdmann has taken over. A hilarious scene, one of many, follows.

Early in his Bukarest stay, Mr Conradi asks his daughter: “Bist du Mensch?” Are you human, a decent person? Or some kind of automaton?

Like him, the audience wonders about Ines. Her world is all about outward appearances, changing opinions to suit the client’s, climb the career ladder, snorting coke, casual sex – not about being one self, building real friendships and true commitments, appreciate and celebrate life.

One of the crucial moments is when Toni Erdmann and his “secretary” turn up at a Rumanian family party. After Ines has been taught to paint Easter eggs, she ends up singing a song – but without grasping its meaning. Its message is to discover one’s real self and remain true to it; to live life.

The film ends with Ines arriving just in time for a funeral. She was not present when her grandmother died. She has got her dream-job, working as a consultant for McKinsey in Singapore. But is she happy, has she become less off a suit-robot?

Suddenly, Ines dons one of her grandmother’s hats and puts in her father’s false teeth. Her father, who has just lectured on life’s fleeting moments and precious memories which can not be captured –  tells her, he will hurry to get a camera to capture this very moment. The audience watches Ines wait for her dad, while she slowly turns back into a suit-robot. She is unable to break free from the ill-fitting mold which prevents her becoming the beautiful, happy, singing butterfly she was meant to be.

There are plenty one-liners and hilarious scenes one grasps straight away. “Of course I’m no feminist, or I wouldn’t put up with a man like you” quips Ines to her boss. There is the comic-tragic scene, when she sings the song. It is a perfect performance – but Ines hardly understands the message.

Toni Erdmann dresses up in a traditional, Hungarian costume. The hairy mythical being supposedly wards off evil spirits. Totally hidden in this costume, he turns up at a “team building” party organized by Ines, which has accidentally turned into an Adam-or-Eve-costumes one.

Are Ines’ guests really naked? Do they really bare all; willing to show who they really are? Ines’ assistant thinks she is furthering her career by turning up naked. But what has this whole scene to do with Toni’s surname, which refers to earth and Adam. What is Toni hiding and revealing?

Much later, Toni Erdmann is unable to get out of the suit. A female hotel receptionist has to jerk the head off. Like scenes throughout this film, this one seems to echo an earlier one. There is the jerk job between Toni’s daughter and her colleague. Yet it also points to what usually happens, when Toni carries out a prank. He gets stuck in handcuffs, in costumes, in situations – unable to escape.

Yes: this is a comedy, but no fluffy one. The acting is brilliant, the film absolutely top class entertainment. But while watching, don’t forget to pay close attention. There are several layers to explore, many of which are only discovered after more than one viewing. So hurry off to watch the film at least once, or grab the DVD and watch it several times.

Telegraph: three hours of very funny comedic joy
Guardian: slight, biting little miracle
YouTube official UK trailer

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