Parent-child conflict is a universal theme that can be spun into an infinite variety of narrative fabrics and colours. For mothers and offspring, it is often treated as an angst-ridden melodrama while for fathers and offspring it is usually a comedy. Each relationship mix has its own tropes and conventions but the German-Austrian film Toni Erdman (2016) is far from being a genre film. It is a stream of consciousness comedic study of the father-daughter bond that is quirky, insightful and strangely moving.
It is hard to imagine a more mismatched duo: Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek) is the epitome of the irritating reconstructed divorced hippie father. He lives alone, seemingly half a century behind everyone else, and loves his own ‘dad jokes’ and clownish antics. When his beloved dog dies, he wants to re-connect with his corporate consultant daughter Ines (Sandra Huller), but his surprise arrival in her city is inauspicious. She barely acknowledges his presence while continuing to do the things that high-potential upwardly mobile young women do to impress and advance their prospects.
From here forward, Winfried wants to save his daughter from a shallow heartless career where firing people, ruining lives, and being fluent in corporate-babble gains respect and reward. Like fathers around the world, he slips into and out of comedic personas to embarrass offspring into self-recognition. His chief alter-ego is Toni Erdmann, alternatively a life coach, Ambassador, or businessman, depending on who Ines introduces him to. In each role, he is able to prick her conscience into seeing herself as the sterile human she has become. In one scene, he tells her boss of a venture where you can hire a daughter to replace one who has no time for you, and in another, he disarms her by asking “are you even human?”. The longer he stays, the more cracks appear in her constructed persona and a softening light peeps through.
Within this linear plotline, there are several sub-stories that work as standalone comedic vignettes. Most contribute to the narrative, but some will leave viewers wondering what on earth just happened? The emotionless sexual encounter between Ines and a colleague is fertile ground for feminist analysis; the off-key singing of “The Greatest Love of All” by Ines is both poignant and ridiculous; and the naked lunch with a hairy guest monster can only be understood through a Beckett-like absurdist lens. At two hours and forty-two minutes, this film requires faith and patience. The pace is slow and another session in the editing suite would have helped without losing what is good and interesting. Fortunately, the acting performances are excellent, with an almost cameo-like deadpan-realism that is delivered convincingly by its relatively unknown stars.
One of the striking things about this film is how not-like-Hollywood it feels. There is nothing formulaic in the narrative nor are viewers pushed into an emotional corner. It is funny, sincere, definitely original, and far too long. By using humour intelligently rather than to exploit the quick gag for a loud laugh, it offers warm insight into the universal father-daughter bond that is as unorthodox as it is endearing.
Director: Maren Ade
Stars: Sandra Huller, Peter Simonischek, Michael Wittenborn