Eternality Tan
by Eternality Tan

I’m sure there are mainstream German comedies that the homegrown audiences enjoy year after year, but for most parts, German films made for the festival or arthouse crowd are often not a laughing matter. Since the turn of the century, Germany has been responsible for some of the most solemn and serious pictures to come out of Western Europe, often dealing with themes of war, politics and historical trauma. 

Toni Erdmann

Works such as Downfall (2004), Sophie Scholl: The Final Days (2005), The Lives of Others (2006), The Baader Meinhof Complex (2008) and The White Ribbon (2009) share something in common—they have been nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Feature, with The Lives of Others winning the coveted Oscar in what was a strong decade for German cinema.

So when a film like Toni Erdmann enters the fray, one could be forgiven for doing a double-take—it is a 162-minute long German comedy… like seriously? It landed an Oscar nomination, the first since The White Ribbon, and was favourite to win it until the election of Donald Trump inadvertently got Iran’s The Salesman politicised, earning the latter sympathy votes.

Toni Erdmann centres on an old father and his estranged adult daughter. Sandra Huller (in a performance worthy of any major acting award) plays Ines the daughter, who has a moderately successful career as a mid-level manager, but leads an incredibly frenetic and stressful working life in Romania. She doesn’t speak much to her father (Peter Simonischek), so when he visits her unannounced, a flurry of emotions is sparked.

The entire film pivots on an awkward father-daughter relationship (the actors’ irresistible chemistry plays a significant part in creating this effect), and despite its length, there is never a dull moment. The key reason is the film’s unique and refreshingly original treatment of a familiar theme—the vulnerability of familial ties in the modern world. How do we even begin to communicate with our loved ones when they insist on communicating with us on their own terms? 

By adopting an absurdist slant that incorporates ‘irritating’ humour and irony into daily scenarios of domestic and professional life, Toni Erdmann sets itself apart from the crowd, and quite simply, I haven’t seen a movie quite like this before. It is as much a tragedy as it is a comedy, in the sense that the film casts a sad halo on these characters as one seeks to connect, while the other resists. That’s all I should say, and I will leave you to discover one of 2016’s best films. It is moving, outright hilarious, surprisingly intelligent, and contains arguably one of the most bizarre sequences in modern cinema approaching its coda, which is certainly worth the admission ticket alone.   

In only her third feature in 13 years, German filmmaker Maren Ade, who interestingly also served as producer for Portuguese director Miguel Gomes (Tabu, 2010; Arabian Nights trilogy, 2015), has made her most accomplished picture yet. Production for Toni Erdmann lasted nearly three months, which is considerably long for a drama of this nature. Ade is known to shoot at least 20 to 30 takes for each scene, and reportedly shot about 120 hours worth of footage. It is no surprise to learn that she spent more than a year to edit the film. 

Toni Erdmann should have been deserving of the Palme d'Or when the film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival last year. It was a golden opportunity to award a female filmmaker one of the medium’s most prestigious prizes. Instead, it got the FIPRESCI prize, but at least that meant the critics absolutely loved it. And I believe you will too.