Film review: Toni Erdmann

by James Robins / 18 March, 2017
Toni Erdmann: languid and preposterous.

A three-hour German comedy veers from implausible to cruel.

To sit through almost three hours of ordinary German comedy calls for an appetite for irony and paradox and a firm grip on sanity, not to mention buttocks of steel. Toni Erdmann, a shock hit at Cannes last year and a ­nominee for the Foreign Language Film Oscar, tests these qualities to the limit.

The picture follows Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek), an unreconstructed hippie and prankster, who, when we meet him, is teasing with the postman. “I like to practise defusing bombs,” he deadpans, relishing the courier’s look of dismay. If this amuses, lap it up. It’s the most straightforward joke you’ll get.

Seeking solace after his dog dies, Winfried tracks down his semi-estranged daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller), a corporate consultant posted to Bucharest, where she is helping fire oil workers.

In protest at her coldness, he dons an extravagant wig, a sharkskin suit and a set of false teeth apparently pinched from The Pogues’ Shane MacGowan, and begins showing up at Ines’ work functions masquerading as a tycoon and, later, as a “life coach” whose name gives the film its title.

At first, these impersonations are playful. We watch on, mildly amused, noting the sly grin Winfried occasionally lets slip. But as the parodies become ever more implausible, his efforts to connect with his daughter take on an edge of cruelty.

Toni Erdmann is a defiantly bewildering film of apocalyptic misunderstandings and excruciating encounters, including a nudist birthday party and an impromptu version of Whitney Houston’s Greatest Love of All.

Most of us will spend most of its 162 minutes squirming in our seats and gasping in shocked laughter as each languid and increasingly preposterous scene unfolds. But the humour is so dry as to be combustible and some sequences pass without even a hint of a gag. Who really wants to be lectured about ­Romanian middle-management business philosophy?

To cut a full 90 minutes from the movie would make sense comedically, and yet the slouching gives you time to think: is Winfried trying to rescue Ines or destroy her? Is this an absurdist satire or a character study of breakdown and psychosis?

Some viewers have found a degree of tenderness and resolution in the film, but I found only loss and loneliness, and fragmented lives that can never be repaired. The bitter twist of Toni Erdmann is that it’s all rather tragic. ••

IN CINEMAS NOW

This article was first published in the March 4, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener. Follow the Listener on Twitter, Facebook and sign up to the weekly newsletter.

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