The biggest surprise of this year’s Cannes Film Festival was no doubt the universal acclaim for Toni Erdmann, a 162-minute German comedy set in Romania but mostly in German.
German-language comedies are a rarity on the international festival circuit and one that’s almost three hours long sounds like an even riskier proposition; sustaining momentum for that long is hard in any genre, but comedies form a particularly complicated subset (just ask Judd Apatow, whose comedies, which normally clock in at around two hours, are funny at the start before they inevitably deflate).
One of the things Toni Erdmann, which also opened the Munich Film Fest in June, has going for it is that the word “comedy” is a very reductive term. Yes, it suggests the film has a lot of funny moments. But it doesn’t suggest that part of the reason why the film resonated so well internationally is that it isn’t just a silly comedy that’s not really about anything, but one with a very serious undertow.
Director Maren Ade, for whom this is the third feature after The Forest for the Trees and Everyone Else, explores highly personal issues such as family relationships — more specifically, a fraught father-daughter rapport — against the backdrop of an increasingly emulous and globalized world. In other words, Aden puts a micro story under the magnifying glass on a macro stage.
Protagonist Ines (Sandra Hüller), a harried and result-oriented business consultant, has been employed by a firm in Romania that needs to increase competitiveness through reorganization and layoffs. There is of course an obvious irony in her position. Ines’s job is to make other people lose theirs: her position was created in order to reduce costs. Ade extends this complexity and ambiguity to Ines’s personal relationship with her father, Winfried (Peter Simonischek), a music teacher who doesn’t really understand the contemporary business world and who believes that any time is a good time for a practical joke, a disguise, or possibly both.
Given these tendencies, it is understandable that Ines considers her father persona non grata when he comes for a surprise visit to the Romanian capital right when the negotiations at her job are heating up and require her undivided attention. One of Ade’s many musings — they can’t really be called questions — is whether success in international business has become a completely humorless affair; on a personal level, in any case, Ines tries to push her father as far away as possible from her job. But as the visit wears on, the idea emerges that humor and family might have a lot in common; they can make a solitary life much more bearable just as much as they can be entirely inappropriate. It is insights such as these that make Toni Erdmann much more than just a comedy.
Simonischek also starred as a father in another film that played in Munich: Wunderlich’s World (Die Welt der Wunderlichs), directed by Dani Levy.
Comparing the two films is a fascinating exercise because they couldn’t be more different. Whereas Toni Erdmann is a film about something that happens to be funny, Levy’s latest is a funny film that’s not really about much. Of course they may appeal to different audiences locally, but it is very telling that films which are primarily comedies designed simply to entertain — other Munich premieres in this category included Monkey King (Affenkoenig) by Oliver Rihs and Underwearlies by Klaus Lemke and even, to an extent, Aron Lehmann’s The Last Pig, although that film also has a message about the environment — are also the films that never leave German-speaking countries to cross over internationally. For that to happen, a film needs to provide some food for thought along with the chuckles, and in that sense, Toni Erdmann, although it opened the Munich Film Festival, definitely had the last laugh.
Edited by Lesley Chow
© FIPRESCI 2016