By Alex Southey
VANCOUVER — In writer-director Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann, audiences are treated to the loosest of sitcom premises, only to discover they’ve been duped into immensely enjoying a story about existentialism. A hard-working businesswoman, Ines Conradi (Sandra Hüller) has no time for her father Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek), an old man who still uses false teeth, whoopie cushions, and wigs to make jokes, but when her birthday crosses over with the death of his dog, he decides on a whim to visit her work in Bucharest. Over the course of his visit, he develops a character he uses to interact with Ines’ peers: “Toni Erdmann.” The name and character come to represent the aspects of his personality his daughter thinks are the worst, the manifestation of their separation.
Ade manages to draw a dynamic movie from nothing through sheer length. At two hours and fourty minutes, it feels as though the story begins, ends, begins, and ends again. There are redundant scenes, and scenes that play like setups you assume will pay off, and then don’t; however, most of them are enjoyable enough to warrant a spot in a comedy, and they for the most part provide characters with abnormal depth.
Much of the comedy that arises can only be labelled as such if you are able to laugh at and embrace the most uncomfortable of situations. For example, Ines hosts a party in her apartment, and when the first guest arrives outside her door, she’s only in her underwear. Through logic only Scandinavian humour can provide, she answers as-is, and through the same absurd Scandinavian grapevine, many of her peers show up at her door nude, having heard it’s the only way to gain entry. For the audience’s pleasure (or, in most cases, satisfying discomfort) there is no attempt to hide the nudity.
These comedic moments are shouldered by those of intense sadness. Winfried and Ines are so separate in their beliefs and personalities they throw deep jabs at each other before being silenced by regret. At the root of their relationship is an inability to express themselves; the inability just manifests itself in two different ways. Winfried attempts to express himself in jokes that are not funny. Ines finds a role through which she can deliver cutting statements and have it “just be business.” When it comes to emotion, they fumble.
But there is deep meaning in the ridiculousness of the film and the callousness of the conversation. If Winfried wanders aimlessly and lives for the moment and Ines wastes her time working towards an intangible goal instead of exploring her present, are they wasting their lives? By placing these questions inside a situational dramedy, the audience might just be disarmed long enough to come up with an answer.
Toni Erdmann is now in theaters.BC, British Columbia, Toni Erdmann