Affecting philosophical comedy about personal desperation and time passing

Teodosia Dobriyanova on Maren Ade’s ‘Toni Erdmann’ (2016)

Toni Erdmann brings me back to childhood, the hot summer afternoons with my mother when, after lunch, she would watch long turn-of-the-century German dramas about life and human relationships. I was too young to remember much of these films, but what has remained in memory was that feeling of timelessness, of easy and prolonged afternoons, the warmth in the air, and the breeze playing with the curtains in the living room.

Maren Ade’s latest work evokes this atmosphere by the way time enfolds within the film. At first seemingly too long, Toni Erdmann offers an observation of life in its trivialities, only to reveal that, at the end, there’s really no such thing, and that every little moment matters. The film follows the story of Winfried (Peter Simonischek) introduced at the opening scene as a funny old man who does not hesitate to joke around with everyone he meets. Only later will we find out how crucial this actually is for his persona.

Comedy is generally essential not only for the genre of the film, but for its philosophy as well — a delicately crafted symbiosis between form and content. Comedy is for Winfried the key to the meaning of life and he uses the joke not only in his day-to-day communication with the world, but also in his attempts to reconnect with his estranged daughter, Ines (Sandra Hüller). Their relationship’s oeuvre is at a family gathering in Germany, where relatives celebrate Ines’ birthday in advance. She works for a corporate company in Bucharest and rarely goes back home. When she does, as we see, she’s on the phone, trying to make it to her next career step in Singapore. Her parents are worried that she works too hard, but as it happens with most families, they are only presented with the best version of her life.

The film’s second act begins when Winfried’s dog dies. Now that there is no one whose existence depends on him, the old man decides to pay his daughter a visit in Bucharest and see how she lives. The truth then reveals itself. Ines’ career is not as glamorous as it seems. A woman in a men’s world, she fights harder than anyone to affirm her place in the company where she is often undermined by her male coworkers. Instead of willing to listen to her business ideas, her boss prefers to send Ines shopping with his wife. A moment that emphasises the absurdity of this gender game is the sequence when Ines’ boss invites Winfried for drinks after hearing his “ingenious” idea to hire a substitute daughter, since his real one is never around. The latter is one of Winfried’s jokes, but the boss fails to grasp it as such.

After a few father-daughter fights and series of misunderstandings, Winfried leaves for a while only to return as his alter ego Toni Erdmann — a bizarre old man who appears at Ines’ business meetings and parties to prank everyone and joke around. However, soon we find out, he is the most serious and human of them all. Ines’ world is a luxurious bubble in the middle of the economic reality of Romania. Her office building is situated right next to a poor gipsy ghetto although obviously seen from the window, everyone deliberately decides to ignore. Not only this, but the company she works for does not hesitate to fire construction workers for absurd reasons, no matter how hard it would be for them to find another job.

After realising that his daughter has become as heartless as the company she works for, Winfried/Toni Erdmann undertakes a journey of reminding Ines what matters in life — human relationships, love and understanding, no matter the differences. And most importantly, one should not take life seriously, because everything can happen at any moment. One should just try to make every moment happen, creating an event out of every single situation. That’s what Ade leaves us with at the end of her film, concluding one more time with a family gathering, but this time a funeral.

As if a series of happenings, the realism of Toni Erdmann is unmistakingly European. Long scenes reveal seemingly meaningless moments that structure the whole philosophy of the film. Almost three hours of life are screened in front of the spectator and, as it happens outside of the theatre, the end reveals the meaning of previous experiences, reconstructing them in hindsight.

Teodosia Dobriyanova

By Teodosia Dobriyanova

Teodosia Dobriyanova is a writer, programmer, and documentary filmmaker based in London. She graduated in Film Studies (BA) from King’s College London (BA) and Ethnographic and Documentary Film (MA) from University College London. She has written for Dirty Movies, Filmotomy, and New East Cinema.