THE PHRASE “German comedy” is usually taken as an oxymoron, like “jumbo shrimp” or “functional democracy.” After all, the land of Beethoven, Goethe, and Fassbinder doesn’t exactly have a rich tradition of joviality. Unless you count all those Downfall memes, and even they wear thin after a while.
So when you hear that Toni Erdmann is an acclaimed, prize-winning German comedy, and that it’s nearly three hours long, you may be skeptical. But when I tell you that most of the movie is actually set in Bucharest, Romania, you just might change your tune. Or maybe not.
Hmm, this isn’t going how I’d planned. Because Toni Erdmann is a movie you should see. It’s funny, heartwarming, and wise, except for when it’s being dark and existential. It features a pair of rich, subtle performances, and it marks the emergence, with her third feature, of director Maren Ade as an important international filmmaker. Also, there’s a scene where a guy ejaculates onto a petit four. So, pretty much something for everyone.
In outline, this sounds like one of those movies where a harried careerist learns a lesson from an unconventional family member about not taking life so seriously. Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek) is an eccentric grade school music teacher with a blind old dog and a predilection for goofy gag teeth. His daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller) is a white-collar warrior, a corporate consultant currently stationed in Bucharest, where she toils on behalf of an oil drilling company.
After his dog dies, Winfried decides to pay Ines a surprise visit in Bucharest. Things don’t go well. He’s dismayed by her clinical, uptight lifestyle and she’s annoyed at his chaotic intrusion and embarrassed by his antics, which often resemble those of a scraggly cartoon bear on an ether bender. After a weekend, they part ways, but he reappears in her life soon enough, with a shaggy Beatle wig added to his repertoire. He introduces himself as Toni Erdmann, a “life coach,” and Ines, too gobsmacked to call his bluff in front of her colleagues, goes along.
At other times, Winfried claims to be the German ambassador to Romania, and all the stuffed shirts go along with his antics, either because they’re truly dense or because they sense the desperation and loneliness, the desire to connect, that underlies his absurdities. He’s not as blatant in his need for approval as a Jim Carrey-style harlequin, but that only makes him a more poignant character.
Ines, for her part, takes the normally two-dimensional role of the buttoned-down, emotionally frigid career woman and makes a textured human portrait. With her downturned mouth and rounded, Cate Blanchett-esque face, Hüller communicates Ines’ competence as well as her gnawing conscience without descending into pathos. An extended scene where she leads a presentation for a client might be the most accurate, blandly heartbreaking depiction of sexism in the workplace on film.
But this is a comedy—sometimes a very silly, raunchy one, as the aforementioned confectionary perversion demonstrates. In the film’s most memorable scene, a birthday brunch turns into a “naked party.” In another, Whitney Houston’s “Greatest Love of All” gets a cover performance for the ages.
Toni Erdmann arrives in Portland after wowing the Cannes Film Festival and showing up on numerous critics’ lists of the best films of 2016. I’m not sure it’s quite in that rank—it’s episodic, with several great moments, but that 162-minute running time does work against it a bit. Still, it provokes thoughts, feelings, and more than a few laughs—all of which are in short supply these days.