Please note: this article contains spoilers.
Toni Erdmann is Maren Ade’s third feature, after Everyone Else (2009) and The Forest For The Trees (2003). It’s an autobiographical fantasy, both a drama and comedy simultaneously, and a family portrait that accommodates both a commentary on generational conflict and a corporate critique. Such breadth is perhaps unsurprising for a film with a 162-minute running time, but more so for one whose paradoxical brevity has often been commented on. The key to the elegance of Ade’s film is the interplay between all these elements, and how expertly they are intertwined.
Ade’s debut, The Forest For The Trees, was her film school thesis film. It was drawn from stories her teacher parents had shared, and focused on a young teacher and her attempts to strike up and maintain a friendship with a neighbour. Ade’s follow-up, Everyone Else, was a drama centred on a young couple under the stress of encroaching adulthood. For her third feature, Ade has returned to her family for inspiration and particularly her music teacher father. He, like, Toni Erdmann’s Winfried (Peter Simonischek), had a propensity for humour and a fondness for donning fake teeth (reportedly picked up at an Austin Powers premiere which Ade volunteered at). Once again, the writer-director chose to focus on the relationship between two people as the kernel for her film.
With Toni Erdmann, Ade intended to pay equal attention to Ines (Sandra Hüller) and Winfried, father and daughter, a balance the director felt she had been unable to sustain between the male and female character in Everyone Else. Ultimately, if Toni Erdmann’s attention drifts towards Ines, it’s understandable, since Winfried deliberately takes on an antagonistic role for his daughter. Winfried is an ageing hippy of the post-WWII Willy Brandt generation (a fact subtly alluded to in the name of his ailing dog, Willy). In Ade’s words, Winfried is ‘torn between his desire for more closeness with Ines and the resentment he feels towards her.’
The comedy employed by Winfried in his Toni Erdmann persona is
paradoxically charged with very serious intent. It’s not simply the
desperate attempt of an ineffectual father to reconnect with his
daughter, or to break the routine of lacklustre presents and fake phone
conversations they’ve fallen into. He sees his daughter’s life and
career as a rebuke to the values he fought for as a young man and wished
to instill in his child. Despite this, his general demeanor suggests
someone content to disengage with the turmoil of the world - someone, no
longer drawn to battle, who takes comfort in harmless absurdity.
Family, however, is the one battleground Winfried can’t fully retreat from, even though all the players therein are seemingly locked in a pantomime of human relationships. As Ade explains, ‘they’re all trapped in their assigned roles and their interactions play out according to rigid, almost ritualistic patterns none of them can escape… Winfried’s impulsive transformation is a bold attempt to break out of the mold of the father-daughter relationship.’ The amplification of his efforts in this regard is an attempt to fight fire with fire, to engage with Ines on equal terms. ‘Humour,’ Ade explains, ‘is his only weapon, and he starts using it to the hilt. That means playing a much tougher game, and since Ines is a tough cookie herself, he’s suddenly speaking a language she understands.’
Toni Erdmann, the character, deliberately recalls Andy Kaufman’s antics in his Tony Clifton persona, an obnoxious Vegas lounge singer, the charmless, abusive and chain-smoking antithesis to his established Foreign Man character. Crucially, Kaufman never broke character, insisted Clifton was a real person embroiled in a feud with Kaufman himself and often recruited others to play Clifton so that the latter has had a long life beyond his creator. For Ade, the inspiration was that ‘on one side, he was this nice, shy guy and then he had this alter ego who did what he wanted.’ The apotheosis of Winfried’s comedy subterfuge is the Kukeri costume he dons to crash Ines’ birthday brunch. Kukeri are Bulgarian in origin, ritualistic monsters - costumed men - who perform dances to dispel evil spirits. ‘I actually think Winfried reveals himself in the roles he plays,’ says Ade. ‘That’s particularly true for the Kukeri, which is really his inner self – a big, melancholy creature with a funny-looking head.’ The costume allows he and Ines to conjure a playful, comforting pantomime of a father and his child.
However, like The Forest For The Trees and Everyone Else before it, Toni Erdmann concludes on a note of uncertainty. Ines has made positive changes in her professional life and there is also a certain resolution in her taking on aspects of her father’s Toni Erdmann persona, borrowing his false teeth and gamely donning the hat he suggests will complete the ensemble. When Winfried leaves, ostensibly to find a camera to capture the moment, Ines grows impatient. The film ends without his return. The stage directions in Ade’s screenplay begin to dispel any ambiguity: ‘Her expression turns serious. She waits. It’s taking too long. He’s not coming back.’
This ending again complicates the film’s status as a comedy. As Ade has explained, ‘I realised that I always need drama, or need to take it seriously. For me, it’s also a film about humour. It should be in between.’ Audiences will find that the tone of the film is transformed, depending on the context in which they view it. ‘When the cinema is really full,’ Ade affirms, ‘it’s another film than when you watch it alone on your laptop. I’m happy that the film has these two faces.’
 Maren Ade, Toni Erdmann production notes
 Maren Ade, Ibid.
 Maren Ade, Ibid.
 Maren Ade, interviewed by James Mottram for The Independent (http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/films/features/toni-erdmann-maren-ade-sandra-h-ller-interview-oscar-foreign-language-film-bafta-golden-globes-a7554586.html accessed 01/02/2017)
 Maren Ade, Toni Erdmann production notes
 Toni Erdmann screenplay, p122
 Maren Ade, interviewed by Amy Taubin, The Close-Up podcast #115
 Maren Ade, interviewed by Jonathan Romney for The Guardian (https://www.theguardian.com/film/2017/jan/21/maren-ade-toni-erdmann-humour-comes-out-of-desperation-director accessed 01/02/2017)