Midway through the absurd family-centric drama-comedy Toni Erdmann, Winifred (Peter Simonischek), while in disguise as his jokester fake persona, the eponymous Toni, is visiting a group of Romanian oil workers while on a business excursion with his exceptionally type-A, pantsuit-wearing, business-obsessed daughter, Ines (Sandra Hüller). At one point, he is speaking to a local man on the verge of losing his land and Winifred instructs him to not “lose the humor.”
It’s a hell of a moment and it’s likely impossible to distill exactly how writer/director Maren Ade wants us to take it. It could be a criticism of Winifred’s practical jokes and his penchant for finding comedy in every situation. It’s a signal that Winifred, for all of his bleeding heart empathy towards the Romanian workers on the cusp of losing their jobs, is still rather obtuse and insulated from the realities of working-class Eastern European life.
On the other hand, it could also be a genuine moment that is intended to make us feel for all parties involved. A sign that, as much as Winifred may be naive, he means well and is trying to connect with this man the only way he truly knows how: by sharing his joie de vivre disposition and his humor. This could be a moment meant to cut against cynicism and counteract Ines’ seemingly cold attitude toward the workers.
Considering the political implications of European reconstruction inherent in this scene and present throughout Toni Erdmann‘s 160-minute runtime (of which I wouldn’t dare cut out a second), it’s remarkable that Ade allows it to be both. It could have been tempting to make this film more cut and dry in regards to how it positions the opposing outlooks of its main characters, to take a stand and argue that one is right and the other is wrong as a way to really say Something™ with the film. Instead, Toni Erdmann considers multiple approaches to its subject matter and is content to allow its characters to exist as fully realized and flawed individuals without full condemnation or endorsement.
While the film speaks to a historical and cultural understanding of contemporary European relations with its story about the German Ines consulting for a Romanian oil company about potential outsourcing, it also resonates universally and deeply, with the crux of the film being placed on Ines and Winifred’s complicated father-daughter relationship. In this, the film gets at the problem of how we use humor as a tool to help us deal with the sometimes harsh realities of living in the world and how this can potentially turn into using comedy to keep ourselves at a distance from reality. Is humor a coping mechanism for the deeply empathetic or a way for the cynics among us to stay cooly detached? What does this mean for our own relationship to comedy?
At this moment in time, it can feel as though we’re all being inundated with jokes and memes online. As many others have pointed out, corporate social media accounts build a presence by churning out branded content to appeal to their internet-savvy followers. Comedy is now something to be consumed as if it was a form of advertising — because it is. In this climate, it’s easy to feel as though humor itself has become compromised. It’s not a lighthearted reprieve from harshness, but just another cog in the machine of capitalism.
With this in mind, it can feel like the humor has long been lost. When brands assume personhood on social media — think of major corporate Twitter accounts like Netflix using “I” to sound like an individual and not a multitude of social media strategists attempting to hawk their product — this could mean that a jovial temperament as a way to establish individuality, as a way to be your own person with your own sense of humor, is impossible, or at least highly compromised.
Returning to Toni Erdmann, this climate of comedy we live in can create the sense that Winifred’s position is outdated or unrealistic. He’s able to focus so much of his energy on his jokes and he’s able to encourage others to keep the humor because he’s at a comfortable distance from reality. For someone like Ines, a woman in a male-dominated field, under scrutiny from those around her, unable to lighten up for fear of how it could damage the career she’s tried so hard to create, she is forced to be present in reality and has seemingly lost her sense of humor as a result. Perhaps in this day and age, it’s impossible to be both present and light-hearted, staying cognizant of the state of the world means losing the humor.
But what the film argues for isn’t as clear-cut as that. The lessons we can take from it about how we can use humor to navigate the world are more complicated. What it comes down to is that we’re not meant to entirely identify or agree with Winifred or Ines. The magic of the film is that it resides in between their perspectives.
As Ines spends more time with her father, she does begin to open up to his attitude. We see her let loose in ways that challenge everyone around her and that show her ability to take risks. Her birthday brunch turned naked party being the ultimate example. Frustrated by the outfit she’s wearing and the necessity of posturing to make a good impression, Ines welcomes her guests in the nude and tells them to get undressed or leave. To her surprise, dear old dad shows up wearing a giant, hairy Bulgarian Kukeri costume. His attempt at a prank by costume is bested by her prank by nakedness. They are opposites, and yet finally we see that perhaps the apple didn’t fall as far from the tree as we first thought. When Winifred leaves, Ines follows and hugs him in a moment of genuine appreciation for the trials they’ve shared and what they’ve learned from each other. It doesn’t mean that it solves everything — Winifred displays health problems after this and the next scene takes us to his mother’s funeral, a reminder to him that his own time is fleeting. But, it does show that the two are willing to be receptive to the other’s perspective.
However, the defiant attitude that is present in Ines’ prank is there in her from the beginning. During a conversation with colleagues, when one of her male co-workers interrupts and speaks over her, she calls him out on it and asks to finish what she was saying. Ines’ development as a character is not that she loses her spirit to give way to a sense of humor. Rather, she incorporates her father’s perspective into her own personality, not losing herself, but only gaining.
Conversely, Toni Erdmann also pays attention to exposing the faults of Winifred’s attitude and his own inability to follow the “don’t lose the humor” advice he gives to others. At the end of the film, he articulates to Ines his fear about hanging onto moments as they happen and his experience of how quickly life can pass by. As she dons his fake teeth and a funny hat, costuming herself as a character similar to the way that Winifred does, they start to share this moment of humor, but it is cut short when he runs off to get his camera and document it. For all the confidence that Winifred displays and for all his commitment to his own love of jokes, he still can’t hang on to something in the moment. Even he manages to lose the humor sometimes.
As much as Winifred is right about the importance of humor, and as much as his perspective is important for Ines to grow, Ade exposes the idea that no one can live according to a single rule or a single light-hearted perspective on life. Comedy can be complicated — the use of humor on social media, while a rather prominent example of this, is only one of many examples that we all navigate on a day-to-day basis. One of the lessons we can take from Toni Erdmann is that comedy without humanity behind it is rather hollow. Ines understanding Winifred’s comedic mannerisms and adopting them herself isn’t what matters, it’s when they use humor to understand each other that they share a genuine connection. We need humor in our lives, but we need each other more.