You’ve no doubt heard the old Italian joke (well, the joke quoted in Watchmen at least) about the depressed man who, passing through a small town, decides enough is enough and he needs help. “Dottore,” he says, “it’s like an ache in my soul – I don’t know what to do!” The doctor replies: “I have the perfect cure. The great clown Pagliacci is performing here tonight. You should go see him!” “But Doctor, don’t you understand?… “ (All together now:) “I am Pagliacci!”
By now you’ve also, no doubt, heard the one about the old German prankster who visits his successful daughter, finds her to be stiff and humourless, and sets about dismantling her straight-backed corporate world. Reality begins to gently, and hilariously, bend – although the punchline is agonisingly deferred.
At Toni Erdmann‘s outset, things are simple enough. Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek) is a sixty-something master of deadpan who teaches music, visits his mother, and pulls immersive pranks on the delivery guy. He lives with his dog and is on good terms with his ex-wife. His day-to-day seems pleasant, provincial, lower middle class. But his daughter, Ines (Sandra Hüller), puts in a brief appearance between her international meetings and Winfried is immediately wrongfooted. She is curt, cold and busy, and when he jokes that he’s hired a stand-in daughter to cut his toenails she replies: “Good. She can call you on your birthday so I don’t have to.” It is telling that the father isn’t sure whether this is hereditary deadpan, or something much sadder.
Dismayed by his lack of connection to his own daughter (and the death of his elderly dog), Winfried flies out to Bucharest unannounced and ingratiates himself and his jokes into the boring world of a business consultant. There are laughs, but the sequence is largely melancholic, and seemingly unfocused; Winfried and Ines rub each other up the wrong way, snap at each other, and the father eventually leaves. He asks her “Are you a human?” Later, she dresses down his lack of ambition. The film’s touted sitcom setup is geared towards mutual disappointment as Winfried fails to lighten up his daughter – but heck, at least he tries.
But the chicken can’t start crossing the road, lose heart and go back again. Have you heard the one about the successful, uncompromising woman whose keen analytical eye and dry sense of humour push her to the most impressive heights of international business? It’s a funny story; her father is experiencing some sort of breakdown, and thinks she’s in need of help. So it is that when we start spending time with Ines we realise that Toni Erdmann‘s knowingly silly premise masks a lot of complexity; she is every bit as formed, and interesting, and lovable as her father. We find that Ines has her own sense of humour but also that she is beset with clear anxieties. It increasingly seems Winfried could be little more than a sanctimonious old man: a child of the ’60s who can’t imagine or accept that someone with Ines’ manner (and job, and lifestyle) could possibly be a fully-formed person. We laugh – of course we laugh – when he suddenly returns, with a shabby suit, a shaggy wig, and his trademark comedy gnashers, calling himself “Toni Erdmann” the “businessman” and lifestyle coach. But he is rarely laughing, and nor is Ines.
This, roughly the 60-minute mark, is where Toni Erdmann starts to become more than the sum of its parts. The film grows into a true two-hander, tracking its wayward, disconnected protagonists over just two days of sublime oddness. It has the bones of a television prank show, but the feeling is more akin to an inexplicably sad dream. Eschewing any sense of hysteria, writer-director Maren Ade immerses us in very real feelings of displacement and uncertainty; she mimics her characters’ disjointed affect, her framing hovering in a mid-space between cold distance and empathetic closeness. The sound design keeps silence, in all its forms, ever present behind the dialogue and between the lines.
Ade’s masterstroke, at a thematic level, is to then apply these ungraspable, but immediate, emotions to such a range of ideas – yet, crucially, without doing anything as dishonest as presenting a definitive answer or singular, deliberate worldview. It really is a film governed by character, and the observation thereof, in order to move towards something akin to a message. Toni Erdmann‘s displacement and disconnect extends from the characters’ specific lives and outwards to questions of death and legacy, love and family, and even into hot-button notions of feminism, globalisation and corporate responsibility. It takes the basic fact of a generational gap and turns this first into the basis for character and emotions, and then into a metaphor for whatever the dialogue happens to be dealing with at a given moment. In short, the idea of disconnection governs everything in this film. A good example is Winfried connecting with a Romanian local living near Ines’ client’s oilfield. In his head a merry prankster, but outwardly of course a suited, hard-hatted businessman, Winfried tells the man via translator: “Don’t lose the humour.” Ines finds this tasteless – “bitter”. She has a point: it is a sweet parting message but, given the context, doesn’t come off quite as intended.
But really, the “point” of the film is that all of this comes from the characters. Ines and Winfried are a classic pairing, each so fully-formed and so uncertain. One of the best sequences sees Ines suddenly inviting “Toni” to come clubbing. She and her friends – who of course think Toni is just Toni – go snort some coke as their new acquaintance watches. The look Ines gives him would suggest that she only invited him along to make a point; to match her father’s immersive challenge and up the discomfort. And the looks he gives her suggest that he’s disappointed by the drugs, but positively destroyed by her intent. Perhaps he recognises his own blatant passive-aggression and can’t handle it. Later, in the club, Ines comes and sits near her father, and starts crying, and leaves. It’s all wordless, and so many things are implied. I haven’t stopped thinking about it in over a year.
Of course, this is nothing on the two major scenes of the final act: a musical performance and a birthday party, which together represent the film’s emotional zenith, then its breakdown and reconstruction, and finally one of the most unspeakably poignant moments on the screen this century. As Ines and Winfried finally find a connection – interestingly, at a point where he has made himself entirely inscrutable, if not unknowable – the performance art joke driving their journey seems to have briefly replaced reality. For well over two hours, laughter and sadness have intermingled, but for a few seconds we finally reach the logical (apparent) punchline and it’s incredibly bittersweet.
The way Ade, and the actors, find all this emotional honesty is nothing short of remarkable. Hundreds of hours of material was cut down to a simple series of memorable sequences shot and acted with apparent realism, but really existing just adjacent to what we think of as normal (right down to Ines’ petits fours). Simonischek and Hüller are jaw-dropping, ably conveying decades of their characters’ inner lives in ways that are both more and less revealing than one might expect. Simonischek, for example, has one amazing showcase where he must visibly emote while being technically invisible – though Hüller, for her part, reacts as someone so connected to him that she knows exactly what he’s thinking.
All in all, this is like funhouse vérité, a sad workplace farce about love. Ade uses farce – its misunderstandings, or at least its twists on “the truth” – as an excuse to document and deconstruct the emotions driving every decision we make and every relationship we build. In what essentially boils down to a harrowing exposé of depression, she follows a father who is confused and saddened to realise he no longer understands his daughter; simultaneously, we see a daughter confused and saddened to realise her father’s opinion of her is so fragile. A joke, generally, is created when two opposing things are combined; a farce, more specifically, is premised on misunderstanding, which is the result of two worlds – headspaces – colliding. In other words, a disconnection between two people can only occur when they are connected in the first place. Ultimately, Ade shows us, old-fashioned, distancing, defensive humour can certainly be generated artificially, with props, costumes, or well-timed lies, and can be really fun – but real magic, real understanding, real love, sits somewhere behind this just waiting for nurture and growth.
The actual ending of Toni Erdmann is perfect. After escalation comes reflection, and the final shot is one of abject sadness – but relating to what, exactly? It’s possible that Ines believes Winfried has “won” his bizarre mission; on the other hand, it could be the exact opposite. Either way, we are left in the same way as the characters, allowed (or possibly doomed) to make up our own minds about this strange world.
A variation on the joke: our depressed person is told by the doctor, “Why don’t you go see the great clown Pagliacci? He’s performing in town tonight – it’ll be just the thing to cheer you up!”
“Oh God, Doc, don’t you get it? That stupid clown’s my father!”
N.B. As our site is UK based, we work off the selection of films released in cinemas in the UK in 2017.
So to recap, here’s our Top 20 to 10…
20th – LADY MACBETH
19th – JACKIE
18th – LOGAN
17th – O.J.: MADE IN AMERICA
16th – PADDINGTON 2
15th – A GHOST STORY
14th – THE BIG SICK
13th – MANCHESTER BY THE SEA
12th – BLADE RUNNER 2049
11th – THOR: RAGNAROK
10th – THE DEATH OF STALIN
9th – CALL ME BY YOUR NAME
8th – TONI ERDMANN
Stay tuned each and every day for the remainder of 2017 to read more on our Top 10 films of 2017!