To all the people who have encouraged the stereotype that Germans have no sense of humor, consider Maren Ade’s film “Toni Erdmann,” which was nominated for this year’s Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.
“Toni Erdmann,” with its straight but thought-provoking storyline, attempts to show the disconnect between generations propelled by technology, globalization and the corporate world through the flawed and aloof relationship between a father and his overachieving daughter. And even with a near 162-minute running time (which I do think might have been too much), it still manages to keep you enticed with its witty comedic occurrences.
When grief and mourning knock on his door with the death of his dog, Winfried Conradi (played by Peter Simonischek), an aging music teacher who loves to make jokes, decides to travel to Bucharest, Romania, to try and reconnect with his daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller), a business consultant whose only source of oxygen is her work.
When Conradi shows up out of the blue in Romania, Ines is forced to face the music about what her job has turned her into: someone as stiff as a rock with no desire to connect with people in any type of relationship. When things do not go well and Conradi’s visit starts shaking up Ines’ solitary lair, he is ready to pull off his biggest prank on her, which involves his alter ego, Toni Erdmann, who pretends to be the CEO of Ines’ company’s life coach. Now that Conradi has successfully inserted himself into the one realm in which her daughter can relate to, what will happen with their relationship?
The comedy in “Toni Erdmann,” alongside its poignant moments, would definitely not be the same without the performance of its leads. Simonischek as Conradi brings so much humanity and authenticity into his character, whose jokes could pass as morals in a fable. Hüller is phenomenal as the uptight, corporate robot Ines, the epitome of individualism and independence going the wrong direction.
The story, as absurd as it may seem, is not extremely unacquainted to the lifestyle that we are taught to follow. “Marry your job, marry your job, marry your job.” You don’t “have to be connected with other people.” Well, we are human beings. We are sociable creatures by nature. Thus, it is deeply detrimental to our own selves if our sole relationship is with our job. Ines is someone who avoids any type of emotional connection, even though she has casual sexual encounters with a co-worker.
Simultaneously, however, and despite her inward unhappiness, Ines is a paragon of female independence. She is hardworking, and she has worked around the world with a job that requires guile. I am sure there is some variant of Ines in everyone’s family: the person who lives far away from friends or family and outwardly expresses liberty and success so that others can see that they are doing well on their own. Nonetheless, they become threatened by the idea of someone coming to visit them, afraid that people will unravel the deep unhappiness that dwells within them.
On the other side of the spectrum, there is Conradi, who is more than just a father who pulls pranks because he has nothing else to do. His character runs by the philosophy of a sort of modern Epicurus, who just wants to live in the present. “Toni Erdmann” really does make you put your entire life structure into perspective and forces you to see it’s all as absurd as his jokes. So really think about this: We spend so much time trying to get to a certain level or stage in our lives that when we get there, we already want something else.
We are born, and then we are educated for 16 years, so that we can receive a job that is supposed to be of our taste, so that we do that for the rest of our lives. But when does it really stop? When will we be satisfied? We have created a never-ending cycle of goals and expectations, which when attained do not exist anymore. Everything is ephemeral. Are we even still humans after being corrupted with so many expectations about something that we will never be able to reach? It is funny to consider that even though being a life coach is only a lie and is not actually what Conradi does for a living, life coaching is the effect his alter ego has on not just the characters in the film, but also the audience.
With a magnificent blend of fantastic performances, hilarious comedy and deeply fleshed-out characters, “Toni Erdmann” is not to be missed this year. It is the definition of smart comedy, and sometimes, its comedic paths take us through roads we could have never foreseen. “Toni Erdmann” has the funniest scene I have seen in film in the past year, so brace yourself for some unexpected comedic turns. Ade shares with us two infinitely complex and opposite characters, whose absurd coexistence proves to be more of a life lesson in this emotionally disconnected cross-generational world.