I’m reminded of the efforts to sell The Death of Mr Lazarescu as a comedy because it didn’t fit into any other marketable box. Toni Erdmann is not a comedy, and the ‘prankster’ father present in every synopsis barely resembles the Winfried/Toni Erdmann we meet in the film. No, this is a deeply depressed and bitter film, filled with frustration at what market forces and globalisation are doing to people of all ages and at all levels of society.
As the father and daughter, Sinonischek and Huller give us two of the saddest characters of 21st Century film. The seams that hold their lives could tear at any moment, and they can keep from falling apart for a while, but the time will come when they realise there is no point trying any more and they might as well have a full breakdown. Winfried is a failed husband and failed father, blundering through one encounter after another, his alienation becoming his defining characteristic. Ines is an exceptionally competent business consultant, capable of turning her own blunders into leverage in a heartbeat, and the fact that she is so good at her job has stripped away everything else, turned her into an emotional husk, alternately raw and unfeeling. They both need a hug.
Thankfully, director Ade has a lot of warmth towards these characters. Perhaps it would have been more of a comedy if she didn’t. But she works so hard to make you care about them, and the actors give all they have, especially Huller. You so want them to connect with each other, or with anything, really, and it’s so hard to see them keep missing. It’s a better, more excruciating film for that warmth.
Did I say it wasn’t funny? Oh, no, it’s funny. It’s piss-funny in places, especially in the final hour. The situations are funny, expertly written and performed to get the laughs, but you’re relieved as much as amused. A few moments are profoundly moving and funny at the same time.
Will they be okay, though? Probably not. The world isn’t getting any friendlier. Toni Erdmann is a remarkable film for our times, one that I may one day call great.