Toni Erdman is an Antidepressant

written by Katerina Lambrinova

Toni Erdmann

An eccentric father is lightening up his serious businesswoman daughter in the quite enjoyable and insightful German feature Toni Erdmann.

It is Maren Ade’s third feature film and the second to attract such attention by both the critics and the audience after the success of Everyone Else (2009) at Berlinale. During the Cannes Film Festival this year Toni Erdmann was a sensation and went home with the FIPRESCI award.

There is a specific magic in the movie. Certainly the extravagant script about a daughter-father relationship is the backbone. The film treats the occurring sense of melancholy in contemporary society, where there is no time and space for real feelings or for questioning one’s values, and where all human connections are deformed or even broken, in a very soft and humane way.

In its thematic focus and general bittersweet atmosphere Toni Erdmann reminds me of another female director’s movie - Lost in Translation (2003). They both switch effortlessly between laugh-out-loud comedy and existential drama. They both are interested in the father-daughter relationship (of course Sofia Coppola would delve deeper into that subject in her next movie Somewhere (2010) dedicated to her father). They are both bittersweet and battle the existential sadness and boredom with wittiness and humour. And of course, they both include quite interesting main characters.

At the beginning of the film we meet the retired piano teacher Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonichek), who lives alone with his old dog. He is abandoned by his last student, his dog dies and he decides to pay a surprise visit to his always-busy daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller), a corporate professional who is trying to negotiate a contract with a Romanian oil company in Bucharest.

Winfried, who wears freaky artificial teeth on his sad face and, tired from life’s boredom, makes weird jokes, precisely of these characteristics reminds us of the famous protagonist of Heinrich Böll ’s novel The Clown (1963). Surprised by his unexpected arrival, Ines takes her father to a series of important meetings which become quite confusing and disturbing for everyone. Observing her robotic behaviour, her father asks her: “Are you a human?”.

Although Ines is totally absorbed by her work in the corporative world, she is way more complex as a character. She’s smart and sardonic and Winfried suspects she is unhappy and feels unfulfilled. All she needs is to be shaken off and that’s exactly what her father intends to do, when he appears once again (after he had previously officially left the town) as the fictional freaky character Toni Erdmann - a prominent businessman or an ambassador – depending on the case. Maren Ade creates a series of farcical situations, but one of the most memorable scenes in the film is Ines’s party, where she welcomes her guests at the door absolutely naked. Her father comes to the party, disguised in a traditional Bulgarian kuker costume. The huge and fluffy figure embraces Ines tenderly in a funny reference to the famous Godzilla scene. Peter Simonischek and Sandra Hüller show a large range on the borderline between farcical and serious.

Along with Sophia Coppola’s movies and Alexander Payne’s Nebraska, Toni Erdmann turns out to be one of the most intelligent comedies in the last few years to deal with family reconnection. They all show that life, with all of its boredom and repetition could be sometimes quite enjoyable. With its extraordinary story, light atmosphere, witty dialogue and incredibly amusing moments Toni Erdmann works as an antidepressant, bringing humour and some healthy doses of madness into our routine life.