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Screening: Toni Erdmann
Gaborone Film Society presents a free screening of “Toni Erdmann” (Germany, 2016)
Review by Robbie Collin, film critic of Telegraph
Not only does German humour exist, it might just save your life. That’s one of many horizon- altering takeaways from the exquisite Toni Erdmann, the new film from the Berlin-based director Maren Ade. Calling it a bittersweet comedy wouldn’t remotely do justice to the Zen-like equipoise in which Ade and her sensational cast hold its sweetness and bitterness.
I cried laughing, laughed crying, and plunged through every other emotional paradox that glugs beneath the surface of family life.
Ade’s film – her first, since the superb 2009 couple-on-holiday drama Everyone Else – is a story for right now, radically insightful and ferociously smart, about modern life fraying down a father-daughter bond to its last remaining thread. It finds lasting, uproarious catharsis in a Whitney Houston singalong, all-nude door-slamming farce, and a sex scene involving petit fours – and not only for the sake of funny-awkward belly laughs, but as part of its unsparing study of the meaning and value of amusement.
It feels like the most German comedy ever made, but its Oscar and Bafta nominations for best foreign-language film suggest the fears and frailties it needles away at are universal.
The first thing to know about the film’s title character is that he doesn’t exist. ‘Toni Erdmann’ is the disheveled comic alter ego of Winfried (Peter Simonischek), a prank-loving music teacher in his late 60s who carries a set of fake teeth in his breast pocket, in case of dad-joke emergencies. His daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller), now in her 30s, is a stony and single-minded management consultant who mainly works in Bucharest, and their relationship, which you sense was once warm as toast, has cooled to lukewarm soup.
When Winfried’s beloved dog passes away near the start of the film, it sparks a trip to the Romanian capital to resuscitate the other most important relationship in his life. He plans to do this by dressing up as Toni – sharkskin suit, burgundy fright wig, and of course those graveyard gnashes, bared in an unpredictable smile – posing as an ‘executive life coach’, and inveigling his way into his daughter’s professional circle.
His hope – which may be misguided – is that the low-level chaos he creates will remind her of what’s really important. It’s purportedly a rescue operation disguised as sabotage, though it’s often easy to wonder if it might be the opposite: Winfried’s jokes rarely if ever make anyone in the film laugh. That bit’s left up to us.
But it is funny – always searchingly and innovatively so, and never settling for an easy laugh. The gags in its immediately iconic nude scene, for instance, are built on self-consciousness rather than titillation – which, in around 110 years of comedy on film, makes it more or less unique.
Ade’s film is a feelie, a thinkie, a twingey, a tinglie, a yearnie, a pinie, and a cherishie. If there’s no space in your life for a near-three-hour German comedy, make room.
In German and English; with English subtitles for the German dialog. 162 minutes