Toni Erdmann is the film for 2017. Maran Ade’s German Comedy about an ageing hippy pulling pranks to get his uptight daughter’s attention is made up of in-jokes; the glory of the film is how it pulls us inside the frame of reference within which the characters exist, delivered with such sincerity that it appears to be a living, breathing force.
As Wini, Peter Simonischek assumes a variety of roles in order to transgress social boundaries and slip into the circles that his daughter, Ines, operates within. These include an ambassador, a life coach and a consultant, all under the guise of the same buck toothed, shaggy wigged ‘Toni Erdmann’ character. Ines has herself needed to suppress her identity and assume a persona to get ahead in the male driven business world, neglecting her relationships as a consequence. As such, Sandra Hüller’s patient performance stands out amongst a uniformly great ensemble.
The breaking of social conventions and wilful pushing against taboo subjects will draw comparisons with cringe comedies like The Office, however the presence of Toni as an Andy Kauffman-like character makes it something different. The dramatic irony that the audience knows exactly who Toni really is, while he enacts outrageous pranks before his confused ‘victims’, highlights our subconscious urge to act out.
This is not dissimilar to the comedies of Adam Sandler, which depict a collection of chaotic luddites tearing apart their sugary sweet society by ignoring taboo.
There is even a strange parallel with Sandler in the setting of Toni Erdmann. Sandler’s slapdash comedies are often set in holiday resorts in some hot country, presumably because the star and his buddies want a holiday around their film. Ade’s production also takes place in a far off country: still developing Bucharest. The glamour doesn’t quite translate. Rather, Toni Erdmann trades in the visual language associated with gritty festival films by auteurs like Cristian Mungiu or the Dardennes: invasive, handheld photography designed to interrogate character psychology. But Toni Erdmann is, intentionally, more shaggy and loose, allowing its sitcom scenarios to play out in real time.
Sandler’s oeuvre is full of aimless sequences in search of an editor, protracted to painful lengths before somebody drops a crude fart gag. Remarkably, Toni Erdmann does the exact same thing with ostentatious purpose. The length of the scenes allows for not just slow building comic tension, but for peaks and troughs within; dynamic shifts in power and tone that make the film consistently revelatory, especially during the comic tour-de-force which makes up the final half hour. Maren Ade confines Sandler’s own painfully protracted comedies to the depths of Netflix where they belong.
The epilogue is perhaps unnecessary in that it only serves to make clear everything that had been implied in a striking visual image at the film’s climax. Without the capper, it could have been one of the great cinematic endings. Regardless, this is a film with a richness that rewards revisiting. Just as he does the characters, Toni Erdmann will entice and obsess the viewer.