“Where are my teeth… ?”
Writer-director Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann operates based on a sitcom premise that then develops to become a story about existentialism. A hard-working businesswoman, Ines Conradi (Sandra Hüller) has no time for her father Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek), an old man who still uses false teeth, whoopie cushions, and wigs to make jokes, but after both her birthday, for which he was unprepared, and his dog dies, he decides on a whim to visit her where she works in Bucharest. Over the course of his visit, he develops a character he uses to interact with Ines’ peers: “Toni Erdmann”. The name and character come to represent the aspects of his personality his daughter thinks are the worst, the manifestation of what she may feels separates them.
The reason development occurs where it normally wouldn’t is because Ade gives it the time. At two hours and forty minutes, it feels as though the story begins, ends, begins, and ends again. There are redundant scenes, and scenes that play like setups you assume will pay off, and then don’t; however, most of them are enjoyable enough they warrant a spot in a comedy, and they for the most part provide characters with abnormal depth.
Much of the comedy that arises can only be labelled as such if you are able to laugh at and embrace the most uncomfortable of situations. For example, Ines hosts a party in her apartment, and when the first guest arrives outside her door, she’s only in her underwear. If she takes the time to dress, she runs the risk of her guest leaving, and she’s not that popular. So she answers the door as she is. Through a series of broken telephone, many of her peers show up at her door nude with gifts, having heard it’s the only way to gain entry. The nudity isn’t blocked whatsoever. Both men and women are on full display.
Moments of intense sadness shoulder those of comedy. Winfried and Ines are so separate in their beliefs and personalities they throw deep jabs at each other and then hesitate, not the other way around. After Winfried witnesses a brutal verbal spar between Ines and her work associate, he asks her if she’s even human. Later she explains in no uncertain terms she doesn’t care about him.
At the route of their relationship is an inability to express themselves; the inability just manifests itself in two different ways. Winfried attempts to express himself in jokes that are not funny. Ines finds a role through which she can deliver cutting statements and have it “just be business”. When it comes to emotion, they fumble.
After Winfried finally leaves, Ines gets together with her girlfriends and they compare bad weekends. Ines unflinchingly expounds on her awful father and their time together – and then the man ordering a drink at the end of the bar turns around and it is Winfried, or should I say Toni Erdmann. He joins Ines and her girlfriends as Toni and digs deeper into her life like a splinter. They never speak about what she said, but under the guise of confusion and insult they come to speak about life, and what they want from it.
If he’s aimless and she wastes her time working towards an intangible goal instead of exploring her present, are they wasting their lives?
By placing these questions inside a situational dramedy, they themselves develop to become worthy of exploration.