You know how, after you’ve had a long day at work, all you want to do is settle in to watch a three hour subtitled German anti-comedy about small office business politics in Romania? No? Then the popularity of this film may come as somewhat of a surprise. Sure, plenty of great German films win international releases, but not usually those billed as comedies; German comedy doesn’t have jokes, it is the joke. So it’s somewhat of a relief to discover that there’s no need to re-consider this worldview – this is exactly what one would expect from a German comedy. That is to say, in the best and most German possible way, it’s not really funny.
Maybe that’s not quite true. It’s wryly amusing and has a nice line in The Office-style cringe, accompanied by a few outrageous, breathlessly hilarious set pieces. But basically this is a drama. The fact that it’s a drama about a man who thinks he’s funny doesn’t make the film funny, nor does the film have any pretensions about this. There’s a frustrating trend in film marketing of pitching genre-defying films as comedies, I presume just to get an audience through the door. Well, this is a comedy in the same way that Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was a comedy: it’s not, it just has misguided advertising.
If anything, it’s an anti-comedy. It delivers deliberately bad jokes, sets up obvious punchlines and then ignores them, and generally steers clear of outright laughs at almost every opportunity. What it looks for instead is whimsy and absurdity. It finds this in the juxtaposition between the greyness of our protagonist’s perfectly-calibrated life and her father’s colourful attempts to upset her balance. The corporate coldness is accentuated by an austere directorial style: shot matter-of-factly so that it looks almost like a documentary or a reality TV show, and completely absent a film score. Save for the background soundtrack in a nightclub scene, there’s no music at all until the credits.
At heart, this is a tale of a father trying to repair a lost relationship with his daughter. He thinks he’s going to save her life; she thinks he’s going to ruin it. In the end, perhaps they both might just have an opportunity to save each other. So far, so cliche. Except this is about as far from predictable as it’s possible for a film to be. More anti-comedy abounds in the narrative: plot threads go nowhere, seemingly irrelevant and elliptical vignettes eat up story-telling time. The film meanders without clear pacing or momentum, as if its near-three hour running time is its own joke. Then, out of nowhere, a burst of profound human connection. Or erect male genitalia. Or a sudden burst of laughter at something completely mad and unexpected.
There’s an amusing amount of explicit nudity, none of it even remotely sexual. There’s also, for no reason at all, a ridiculous Bulgarian folk costume that looks like it wandered straight out of Where The Wild Things Are. I say no reason at all, but of course that’s not quite true either. Toni Erdmann functions almost as a reverse shaggy dog story. It pretends not to know where it’s going, but there’s deep characterisation to be gleaned from the spirals of disconnected randomness. This is a film about the walls we build around ourselves, about the characters we present to the world: the acting that acts as a shield. About what we sacrifice to fit in, to get along, to succeed; about the continual micro-transactions of happiness we make without a sense of where our balance sheet stands.
It’s weird, beautiful, poignant and squirm-inducingly accurate to life. The acting feels completely real, and though it’s sometimes discomfiting, it’s always interesting, though it probably lasts a tad too long. Also it has a scene where a man masturbates onto a cake. I guess that’s German comedy for you.