Together with The Salesman, this was one of the two front runners for the Best Foreign Film Academy Award earlier this year. My wife recently commented that we seem to watch disproportionately fewer German films and this is indeed the case. One reason might be that German film traditions feel odd even to those used to other European films given their links to German expressionism. I will certainly try to add more films to our watch list but in the meantime Toni Erdmann makes for a decent reminder how German films can be excellent and yet feel very strange to our sensibilities.
The main character’s real name is the unassuming Winfried Conradi, a divorced man, well past middle age, with a single daughter. He seems to be a bit of a weirdo, prone to silly pranks and outrageous lies. His daughter is Ines, a successful executive attached to a consulting firm in Bucharest. During a visit home, she is politely tolerant of his antics but seems to want little to do with him. One day following the death of his dog, Winfried decides to travel to Bucharest to look for her. With him following her around, his presence throws her off her usual rhythm even as she struggles with conflicts at work. He seemingly leaves after a weekend but instead pops up at a local restaurant wearing a wig. He introduces himself to her friends as Toni Erdmann, an outlandish persona who tells ridiculous stories. She decides to play along, powering through the awkwardness as he interacts with her colleagues and clients, all of whom don’t know quite what to make of him.
This is considered a comedy but the sense of humor that it invokes is very different from anything we’re used to. Most of the scenes don’t make me laugh. Instead they make me cringe due to the social awkwardness and sympathetic embarrassment. The one exception is the one scene towards the end involving copious nudity due to how unexpected and shocking it is. Then it goes ahead and tops itself due to Toni’s ridiculous costume. Even when I don’t find it hilarious, I must admit that it’s consistently amusing and more importantly engrossing as we’re constantly on edge waiting to see what Toni does next. The great thing is that unlike Hollywood movies, the world doesn’t reshape itself to reward his antics. Some people are entertained by what he does, others are nervous or even disgusted. His little jokes hurt as often as they help as he himself discovers when he inadvertently gets some Romanian workers fired and it’s certainly no panacea for Ines’ troubles.
At heart this is of course a film about the relationship between a father and his daughter. While the film predictably ends with their relationship on a stronger footing, I like that it reveals hidden depths and layers for both Winfried and Ines. For example Winfried is concerned that Ines doesn’t have much of a life outside of work but she becomes more willing to reveal other sides of her life including recreational drug use with her friends and colleagues to his persona as Toni Erdmann. At the same time, Ines does perhaps learn that it isn’t necessary to constantly be the uptight, perfectly poised business executive. It’s an unconventional take on the normal genre which follows no fixed formula and because of that becomes refreshing and unforgettable.
I’m sure that there are plenty of shades of meaning that were lost in translation to me. Are Winfried’s antics a dig against the traditionally strict attitudes that Germans are supposed to possess? Is it supposed to be funny when ordinary folk don’t know how to respond to him? Still there’s enough complexity, entertainment value and sheer unexpectedness here to delight me. I think I like it even more than The Salesman if only because the Iranian film proceeds along more predictable tracks.