I don’t think I’ve seen another comedy from this whole decade where I found myself laughing for every minute it went as long as it did, but somehow Maren Ade managed to create in Toni Erdmann what I already see as one of the very finest of its own kind. It only took me about as much as a single rewatch to let everything captivate me the way in which it did, but the more I revisit Toni Erdmann I find that it is also eliciting far more than just my hardest laughter on the spot and that’s just the very least of what I feel makes this film ever so wonderful as it happens to be, but it also makes me incredibly sad just as I let the thoughts of it come back to my head. There comes a point to which I wonder what it will feel like, entering an older age and I will end up feeling alienated from people who I thought I could really consider my friends, only to find they don’t want anything to do with me anymore. If my own isolation from others has ever instilled any more fears about my own future, I suppose I’ll come back to Toni Erdmann because in every bit as absurd as it may be, it’s also incredibly affecting from start to finish.
Our lead character is Winfried Conradi, a divorced music teacher with a knack for creating many fake personas and pulling off elaborate pranks under these aliases. Struggling to reconnect with his daughter Ines, he creates a persona with fake teeth and a wig under the name “Toni Erdmann,” now as he tries to enter the life of his daughter. The many interventions first come to Ines’s annoyance because of her workaholic tendencies, but soon she begins to play along – realizing what has been missing from her life the whole time. From every moment I spent watching Toni Erdmann, every moment of awkwardness rang to feel like something more beautiful, more heartwarming, it was like something that I couldn’t describe. But I kept thinking about what a film like this would have meant to Maren Ade, and I only found myself in another period of self-reflection, pondering about what my own life is worth.
There’s not a minute of Toni Erdmann that feels wasted, which says a lot given the incredible running time being near three hours. But in the vision of Maren Ade, a story that hits so personally to someone like her is not complete without its own sense of social commentary – biting back at the effects of the business world upon your own identity. In this case, we have Ines, whose childhood seems to have gone away so quickly upon her entry into the “adult” world of the big business. But given where Winfried is in his life at the very moment, having lost any sense of happiness now that those who he loves are gone from his own reach, you just need to see this much to get the idea that there is a void present in his life and he seeks to fill it up. It seems a bit on the nose, when the film starts off with the death of his dog, but a family pet of the sort isn’t just simply a companion for some – but an encapsulation of everything that made oneself happy, as short a time as it can be.
Every moment of Toni Erdmann that embraces the awkwardness also shows what makes it so beautiful, for even in the moments where she knows she still plays along with the silly interactions that “Toni Erdmann” presents in her life. If she has come to a point where she knows she cannot be interrupted by her father’s presence, she could simply allow it to happen in the form of “Toni Erdmann,” who seeks only to revitalize that happiness that has felt so missing from her life. Because these moments that we saw as being comedic suddenly turn into dramatic for us, allowing the memories to come back to us, they simply remind us of what it feels like to be free-spirited, even if the notions can be as awkward as they make themselves out to be. And in the moment, we find ourselves laughing hysterically, but soon we find ourselves feeling something else sooner – something only the very best of cinema can ever create for us.
Sometimes I just feel like I’m missing what I know has made me happy, and others I’m only fearing what a future that dooms itself simply to being a business figure can end up doing to me as a person. And then Maren Ade has to come around with a film like Toni Erdmann and suddenly I feel like I’ve been opened up again, and perhaps the source of my happiness could be in plain sight after all and I just didn’t recognize it. I don’t know if I can stress how stunning a film this really is, because of what it is so willing to embrace that so many other films of this sort couldn’t. But the fact it carries on as long as it does, detailing the distance in connection between father and daughter, is something I find even more impressive – because you already feel as if you can recognize that brokenness. And like that, I just think to myself about what it is that I miss most from being around people who made me happy when I was younger, sometimes the strain only makes me feel bitter – and I just can’t take it anymore. But will it take another “Toni Erdmann” to enter my life and show me all of that once again? I don’t know the answer to that.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via Sony Pictures Classics.
Directed by Maren Ade
Screenplay by Maren Ade
Produced by Maren Ade, Jonas Dornbach, Janine Jackowski, Michael Merkt
Starring Peter Simonischek, Sandra Hüller, Ingrid Bisu, Michael Wittenborn, Thomas Loibl, Trystan Pütter, Hadewych Minis, Lucy Russell, Vlad Ivanov, Victoria Cocias
Release Year: 2016
Running Time: 162 minutes