The new adverts for the German film Toni Erdmann market it as ‘hilarious’, ‘outrageous’ and ‘the finest comedy in recent memory’. Its plot synopsis certainly makes it sound funny: Winfried, a retired and divorced father, tries to reconnect with his high-achieving daughter Ines by carrying out a series of increasingly outrageous practical jokes as his comic alter ego, Toni Erdmann.
However, the film is better described by its director Maren Ade. She says it is ‘very long and sad’. Obviously it’s easier to sell a hilarious comedy than a heartrending character study from Germany that lasts two hours and 42 minutes. Yet the greatness of the film lies in its immense humanity and pathos, and how these slowly give way to abrupt, anarchic comedy moments. It is quite unlike anything I’ve seen in the cinema before.
American comedy blockbusters generally fail because we simply don’t care enough about the characters. They are often too lazily drawn; they’re two-dimensional and generic. They rely too heavily on the likability of their stars, with the audience expected to care about the actor if not about the caricature they portray.
Even good films sometimes find it difficult to create comedic characters we can care about because they have such a short time in which to establish characteristics before bombarding us with gags. Sitcoms are better at creating comedic storylines: the audience has a familiarity with the show and the humour often comes from knowing how certain characters will react to certain situations.
If a good joke is all in the set-up, then Toni Erdmann certainly has a lot of patience: the Toni Erdmann character doesn’t start to disrupt Ines’s work life until an hour into the film. The craziest set-pieces take place in the movie’s last hour. Before then, Ade’s economical direction makes us care for the characters through extraordinary attention to detail. The simple, handheld cinematography lingers on intimate moments, intently portraying the minutiae of the characters’ day-to-day existence. The film’s Bucharest setting is captured in insipid colours, with a striking lack of romance. The blunt cinematic style allows us to feel the depressed, lonely lives of father and daughter. Winfried has all the time in the world but no one to share it with, while Ines has no time for anything except a dehumanising corporate existence.