By the time Toni Erdmann made its way to Nashville, its reputation was already far ahead of it. Almost universally acclaimed and beloved, it was hailed by many as one of the best films of the year, if not the best film of the year. That can make for an intimidating experience to approach a film, and when you factor in that Erdmann is a nearly three-hour German film, you’d be forgiven for making certain assumptions about the film.
But one look at the trailer for Toni Erdmann makes you realize that this film isn’t what you might think it is. Not unless you assumed that it’s a comedy about a prank-playing father who loves wearing false teeth and creating elaborate stories/lies for his own entertainment, and often at the cost of embarrassing those around him. And when he realizes that his work-obsessed daughter is at risk of letting her life pass her by, he decides to inject some madness into her world.
That’s right. This great film, this powerful experience? It’s a broad, silly comedy that mines some of the “slobs and snobs” archetypes. And that definitely isn’t quite what I expected.
To be fair, that’s not exactly what Toni Erdmann is, but it’s a good starting point. Because, yes, this film is frequently laugh-out-loud funny, with a knack for absurdism and broad comedy that you don’t often see in films like this, and a willingness to be silly that serves it well. But to call Toni Erdmann a comedy isn’t quite right, either; it’s a melancholy film in many ways, one that uses its comedic touches to lighten the material it’s grappling with: a father who worries that he’s failed his daughter; a woman struggling to make her name in the male-dominated (and often misogynistic) business world; a daughter who doesn’t understand her father at all, a feeling he reciprocates; a disconnect between corporate-speak and the real consequences that affect people’s lives; and plenty more. In short, this is heavy material, made palatable and enjoyable by the film’s comedy.
The result is a fascinating, odd film, one that really feels like little else that I’ve seen. It’s undeniably long, and yet, it lives in that length, using every minute of its time to let its characters breathe and develop, even in scenes that don’t add much to any traditional “narrative”. It’s a film that follows its characters through no end of trails – conversations with friends, awkward encounters with lovers, power struggles, moments of despair – and watches them all with equal compassion and understanding. And while the film’s synopsis above might make you think you know whose side the film is on – after all, in any film with a career-minded woman and an anarchic man, has any film ever taken the side of the woman? – writer-director Maren Ade doesn’t want to do anything so simple. She loves and admires both of these characters, and simultaneously finds both of them lacking and wanting in so many ways.
I’m still, to be honest, not entirely sure what I thought of Toni Erdmann, a film whose greatness seems to be less in filmmaking or being groundbreaking, and more in its humanity, its heart, and its kindness. (In some ways, it reminds me of my reaction to Kenneth Lonergan’s You Can Count on Me, a film whose greatness arrived in a way I never expected.) It’s an endearingly odd, unique film, filled with memorable scenes, odd moments, and rich characterization, and marked by a refusal to give us any simple moral, any one lesson we can learn. Instead, it takes on the world, its characters, sexism, parenting, guilt, love, business, and more, and throws it all together into one unique mixture. It’s funny, and it’s heartbreaking, and it’s overlong at times, and just right at others, and in all really like little else out there. And at times, it’s genuinely profound, touching on the human experience in a way that a more “conventional” movie never could. But more than anything else, it’s wonderfully human, and wonderfully humane, and I kind of loved that about it. Is it great? Maybe, maybe not. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a pretty wonderful (and wonderfully odd) movie.