She may not have been awarded any trophies, but in 2016 Maren Ade won the hearts of the Cannes critics with her third feature, Toni Erdmann. The comedy (although Ade insists it wasn’t considered as such when filming) screened in competition but lost out to the Very Important Message of Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake (2016). It was, nevertheless, the surprise hit of the festival.
Many of the critics who championed Toni Erdmann also lamented the fact that it didn’t win the Palme d’Or. It would have been a radical choice for the judges to award the top prize to Ade’s film considering that the list of post-millennial winners is dominated by works just as solemn as Ken Loach’s unfavourable portrait of austerity Britain. A middle-aged man wearing joke teeth and grating cheese onto his wig just doesn’t fit in.
How appropriate, considering that Toni Erdmann is very much concerned with the lengths that people will go to fit in. Ines Conradi (Sandra Hüller) spends so much time trying to do so that it becomes second nature. She inhabits an ultra-masculine corporate world where her male peers consider her a feminist because she is strong-willed and wears trousers. She must work twice as hard for half the recognition and although she is one of the smartest, most gifted consultants at her firm, she is often treated with condescension, if not outright disdain.
Enter Toni Erdmann. Or rather, enter Ines’ father, Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischeck). Winfried is a divorced music teacher and a bit of a joker. The first time he appears, he answers the door to a mailman and pretends to be a recently-escaped convict and letter-bomb enthusiast. He turns up to his ex-wife’s house with his face painted like The Crow and he has a habit of popping these ugly joke teeth in his mouth when things get too serious. When his beloved dog dies, Winfried finds himself at a loose end, so he travels to Bucharest, Romania to reconnect with his daughter, much to her surprise.
On the surface, Ines and her father couldn’t be more different. She is serious, conservative and closed-off; he is light-hearted and tolerant. But Winfried knows that they are more alike than she is willing to believe, it’s just that they’ve both erected these fronts to hide their vulnerabilities. Ines condescends to her father (in the same way that her peers condescend to her) because the masks he wears are more literal. His eccentricity alarms her but she doesn’t recognise how similar their behaviours are.
Winfried sees through this, though. He sees through all of the pomposity and self-congratulation of Ines’ circle of friends and he knows what it takes to pass as one of them. That’s how the character of Toni Erdmann is born.
Ines has already sent her father packing before he reappears as Erdmann. To the joke teeth he has added a scruffy suit, unruly wig and all the charm and braggadocio of a snake-oil merchant. By dropping the right names to the right people, he insinuates himself into Ines’ personal and professional lives. Toni Erdmann is a ‘life coach,’ he claims, which is technically true, as his purpose is to open his daughter’s eyes to the world beyond the boardroom.
This leads to the film’s funniest scenes, in which a blast of Whitney Houston karaoke temporarily clears Ines’ cobwebs (Sandra Hüller is impressively committed to matching the singer) and a cocktail party takes a surreal turn in the name of ‘team-building.’ By this point, the comfort that Winfried so dearly wants to provide his daughter is felt so intensely that it becomes manifest, as if Toni Erdmann has taken off his mask and assumed his natural, physical form. It is a staggering, uplifting end to Winfried’s campaign.
All the clowning hides a certain melancholy, however, particularly at the beginning of the film. Maren Ade is excellent at picking out the smallest details to make us care. There is a huge difference between an old dog lying unresponsive on the front porch and that same dog lying unresponsive in the bushes at the bottom of the garden. When Winfried’s smile falters, he pops his teeth back in his mouth. At these points, he’s like the practical joke salesmen in Roy Andersson’s A Pigeon Sat On a Branch Reflecting On Existence (2014); he deals in laughter but finds himself unable to share in it.
This malaise – and the front erected to hide it – is not limited to these characters but is felt across Europe as it’s presented in Toni Erdmann. Ines is forced to take the wife of a wealthy client shopping at one point, where she asserts that the mall is the most Romanian thing she’s seen. All those nice clothes, but no one has the money to buy anything.
That same client is the CEO of an international oil company which is in consultation with Ines and her firm to outsource their work, which inevitably means significant job losses. In this case, Ines and her colleagues are the front behind which this oil company can potentially ruin the lives of its employees without being seen to do so.
Winfried finds all of this extremely distasteful. He persistently tries to get Ines to see the people behind the graphs she presents, the workers that can be fired at a moment’s notice or the families that are forced to live in the middle of an oil-field. Toni Erdmann is a greasy mirror held up to the capitalist West, a buck-toothed caricature of modern neoliberalism. The champagne he drinks and the stretch Hummer in which he rides are gaudy tokens of a misplaced (and popular) notion of success. If Ines can see this in him, there is hope. Toni Erdmann is not just a life coach, or an ambassador to Germany. Toni Erdmann is, most importantly, a chance at redemption.
Runtime: 162 minutes