‘Toni Erdmann’ is as hilarious as it is horrifying

Jan. 18, 2017, 9:45 a.m.

Germans aren’t generally known for their sense of humor. Understandably, the country that produced Nietzche, the Third Reich, and Krampus the Christmas demon is too concerned with the horrors of humanity to laugh at itself. When they dare to venture into comedic territory, the results tend toward bleak absurdism: The famous German satire “Even Dwarfs Started Small” features a cast composed of dwarves who rebel (rather pathetically) against their captors. The joke, of course, is that humans exist in a world as inaccessible and alien to them as everyday objects appear to dwarves. Cue the laugh track.

And yet, just as I was willing to write off German comedy, along came “Toni Erdmann” to get the last laugh. An admittedly bizarre choice for Germany to submit for their Best Foreign Language Film at this year’s Academy Awards, “Toni Erdmann” is as absurd, scandalous and dark as anything the Germans have ever produced. But for once, it just doesn’t feel sick to laugh at the macabre humor. Not only will you cackle at the depravity and guffaw at the nihilism in “Toni Erdmann,” but the laughter will also feel oh so very right.

Consider the following scene from the beginning of the film. Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek), an aging piano teacher, is in the middle of a confusing exchange with a package deliveryman. After asserting that the package isn’t his, but rather his brother’s, Winfried deadpans that his brother was recently released from prison. His crime? Mailing bombs.

We quickly come to realize that every action Winfried takes is a twisted joke, and every sentence he speaks is a punchline – often one lacking in setup. He inexplicably paints his students’ faces (and his own) to resemble skulls, then instructs them to perform a song that suggests a retiring teacher is about to die. After the abortive performance, Winfried looks unfazed, musing that his grotesque face paint will allow him to easily euthanize the members of a nearby retirement home.

Winfried eventually finds an audience for his oddball humor in his estranged daughter Ines (radiantly played by Sandra Hüller). Unbeknownst to Ines, Winfried travels to her nightmarish workplace in Romania and discovers that her world is one of humorless pleasantries and casual misogyny. Her anguish occasionally manifests itself in sadistic one-liners that, like her father’s jests, conceals something much darker. Before a massage, she instructs the secretary to “Bring someone who beats me up.” Her smile suggests levity, but her steely eyes say otherwise. Despite her inner pain, she shrugs off her father’s concern, deflecting a question about her well-being by rhetorically asking him “What do you find worth living for?” Neither father nor daughter appears to have an answer.

Hoping to inject some levity into Ines’s dismal life (and quite possibly his own), Winfried sets out to surprise his daughter at every turn with bizarre pranks. To this end, he creates and acts out the character of Toni Erdmann, a life coach with false teeth and a penchant for inappropriate questions. He handcuffs himself to her in jest, but misplaces the key. He speaks at great lengths to her business associates about the burial of a turtle. As the apotheosis of his mischief, he corners her into performing Whitney Houston’s “Greatest Love of All” before a crowd of strangers.

Though Ines is initially revolted by her father’s antics, she becomes touched by his commitment to making her smile. His humor begins to manifest itself in her as she makes startling displays of dominance over her male coworkers – all under the guise of comedy. Winfried, too, seems changed by his daughter; his ambiguous punchlines soon find a subject to satirize (her abominable coworkers) and a context (his compassion for her). Have father and daughter given each other something to live for?

Despite its familiar plot, “Toni Erdmann” is anything but a Lifetime feel-good family comedy. Director Maren Ade performs a cinematic juggling act between the film’s riskier elements (drug abuse, depression, sexual perversion) and its screwball comedy, finding a balance that emphasizes comedy’s necessity in overcoming pain. Leads Peter Simonischek and Sandra Hüller also deserve praise for handling the film’s tonal shifts, as their performances often turn from lighthearted to despondent on a moment’s notice.

My most salient issue with the film is its length (nearly three hours); the second act is somewhat overstuffed with comedic set pieces, the aggregation of which leads to diminishing returns. Yet, just when the film’s silliness starts to wear itself out, Ade throws in a salacious climax so hilarious, so cathartic and – you guessed it – so deliciously fucked up that the film instantly redeems itself. You’ll leave “Toni Erdmann” amused, ponderous and disturbed – but honestly, what else did you expect from the Germans?


Contact Rey Barcelo at rbarcelo ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Rey Barceló is a sophomore studying Computer Science (and trying to pick up a Film minor along the way)! He hails from sunny SoCal, but spent far more time watching films than going to the beach. Happiest when immersed in the psychedelic sounds of Tame Impala, the invented worlds of Jorge Luis Borges, and the Criterion Collection, he can usually be found in the Media and Microtext Center of Green Library, in between Paul Thomas Anderson and Ingmar Bergman. He recommends "Hausu" (1977) for its gritty depiction of carnivorous-piano-related deaths and "Cemetery of Splendour" (2015) for its action-packed thrills.

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