The film Toni Erdmann has been marketed (in Britain, at any rate) as a German comedy (though it is a German-Austrian co-production. To be precise, it’s been marketed as “Hey, look, the Germans do have a sense of humour!”, but ‘comedy’ is not the right word.
The word ‘peculiar’ was the first word to pop into my mind as I left the cinema. There were funny moments, quite a few of them. Some were funny ha-ha, some were funny peculiar, some were bitter-sweet funny, a lot were awkward funny. Actually, here was more drama than comedy, which means it could be described it as a ‘dramedy’, a term as uncomfortable as the film sometimes made you feel. The other, overwhelming impression I was left with was bleakness. If you really wanted to, you could describe it as a bleak comedy, which sits nicely alongside ‘black comedy’ in comedy’s ever-growing pool of sub-genres.
But what’s the film about? IMDb.com describes the plot as “A practical joking father tries to reconnect with his hard working daughter by creating an outrageous alter ego and posing as her CEO’s life coach”, which seems accurate enough. Toni (or Winfried) is the protagonist, he drives the action, but the film definitely belongs to his daughter Ines’s. It is her emotional journey the audience is invited to go careering along on – her awkwardness, her pain, her complete and utter bewilderedness, which we share. Toni/Winfried remains unknown to us, despite all his shenanigans. And this dual aspect to the film gave it a strange, slightly lopsided dynamic. We want to like Toni/Winfried, we want to love him with his crazy wigs and strange costumes, and though Ines gets that brief though big, fluffy hug from him, he is still out of reach.
The film slightly reminded me of Napoleon Dynamite, which left me feeling equally perplexed. But on reflection, you discover that this film really is a comedy: it is warm, uplifting, life-affirming, though certainly strange along the way. Napoleon himself often appears baffling, but his motives and emotional drives are clear, the film’s energy culminating in the glorious wedding scene. Toni Erdmann does not leave you feeling the same way. In fact, it kind of hurts and unsettles. And that’s what makes the film so interesting. But not quite a comedy.