Toni Erdmann, part of the European Film Festival 2017 offering, stars Peter Simonischek as Winfried Conradi, a school music teacher with a penchant for the silly. He wears a truly frightening set of false teeth to play pranks on delivery guys, and manages to dress up as the least exuberant clown you’ve ever seen for a school event, after which he arrives at a family dinner still wearing his faded, bewildering makeup.
The audience realises from his family members’ staid reactions that this is not the first time Winfried has entered their house looking like a demented serial killer. His daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller) loves him the way he is, but seems eager to get back to her high-powered job as consultant to an oil company in far-away Bucharest. The fun starts a bit later, when Ines is back home in Bucharest and Winfried, who doesn’t like that he gets to see so little of his daughter, pays her a surprise visit.
The film, through its protagonist Winfried and his alter ego Toni Erdmann (the one with the teeth), asks the important questions very early on: What’s worth living for? What does it mean to be human?
Toni acts as a sort of Patch Adams to a veritable psych ward full of overworked, cynical drones in expensive suits who spend most of their time making money for other people and the rest getting high and sleeping with their colleagues. Writer-director Ade does not flinch from the more unwatchable elements of daily life (like getting a toe caught in a collapsible day bed), or from the slow, unchoreographed moments usually not recorded by movie cameras (like waiting two minutes for the lift doors to open). These unremarkable fragments of a normal life make quite the visual impact, but the film frequently lurches to the other extreme: Toni and his horrible teeth and ill-fitting wig deliver a disorientating injection of absurd, colourful, improbable humour, acting as an antidote to those who take life (and themselves) too seriously. A dad joke gone way too far, one might say, as Winfried-Toni pretends to be his daughter’s boss’s life coach, all the while trying to get serious, sober Ines to disprove her father’s claim that she isn’t human.
Ines comments derisively on the fact that Bucharest boasts Europe’s largest mall, but that no one who lives there has any money to spend in it. That statement, coupled with a mildly disturbing visit to an active oil field and the many scenes in which rich foreign business people throw money at champagne, drugs, spa treatments, and designer wares, seems to point out the possibility that Ines might not be the only thing not functioning optimally in the world of the film; Late Capitalism isn’t doing so well either. Could Toni Erdmann be the cure?
South African audiences may find at least part of the premise of this film too reminiscent of a Leon Schuster product circa 1988 to be able fully to immerse themselves in the narrative, but that would be a shame. Toni Erdmann may test the limits of human empathy (and of the human bladder — it’s not a short film), but it’s worth staying until the end, where the absurdity blossoms into something entirely bewildering and, simultaneously, truly touching. Life is moments, and those are fleeting. Why waste them on chasing dollars when you could be dancing around in a funny wig?
Please note: This film contains full-frontal nudity, scenes of a sexual nature, and scenes depicting drug use, and might therefore not be suitable for younger viewers. Toni Erdmann will be screened at Cinema Nouveau at the V&A Waterfront on 7 and 13 May as part of the European Film Festival coordinated by the Goethe-Institut. Book your tickets at www.sterkinekor.co.za.