Toni Erdmann (2016) Movie Review

Why so serious?

It is a tragedy of our age that many of our young men and women are forgetting the simple pleasures of life. They start taking life too seriously, too soon. They climb aboard the roller coaster of corporate life early and are never able to descend it. For a career-obsessed individual, modern corporate life is nothing but a wasteland littered with broken dreams and desires, doomed relationships and sterile sex. That brilliant TV satire, Black Mirror, in recent times has delineated the anomie of post-modern life and the sometimes fatal addiction to technology.

Toni Erdmann, the German drama-comedy, is about a woman climbing the ladder of corporate success, yet descending to a stage where she has forgotten the simple pleasures of life. This year’s Oscar nominee, is about a woman always on phone, working on her body language to further ascend the corporate ladder. She never stops to enjoy the fruits of her success. Always in a hurry to seal deals that destroy other lives and livelihoods. She lives in an apartment that looks like any other young achiever’s bachelor pad anywhere. She is successful in her career. She has a sex buddy, whom she engages in bored and tired caresses. She asks her young man carbuncular to ejaculate on petit four.  Yet she is lonely, bored like Travis Bickle (Taxi Driver) from another age or the women from Eliot’s The Wasteland’.


“She turns and looks a moment in the glass,
Hardly aware of her departed lover;
Her brain allows one half-formed thought to pass:
“Well now that’s done: and I’m glad it’s over.”
When lovely woman stoops to folly and
Paces about her room again, alone,
She smoothes her hair with automatic hand,
And puts a record on the gramophone.”
(The Wasteland, T. S. Eliot)

Her father is an old man with no lofty ambitions. He lives, perhaps, to play innocent pranks and make people laugh. He keeps a pair of dentures in his shirt’s pocket to pull out whenever he feels that the normal people around him have begun to take life too seriously. It’s his job to lighten up life for the young and the restless. When his dog dies, the old man wanders into that city where his daughter lives in a sterile, modern apartment. Once upon a time they were close and her father was her favorite clown. Now she is a grownup lady, and her father remains a child. He presents her a cheese grater, a family tradition. She is embarrassed by her father’s unpredictability. He gatecrashes her life, and her office as a man in a grotesque wig, fake teeth and carrying a fart cushion. He is now Toni Erdmann, his alter ego, the fun persona. He shows to her that life is something that happens when we are making other plans. The detours we take from the straight highway of life make our lives worth living.

The movie is surreal at times. The impromptu naked party sequence is something from the cinema of Luis Bunuel. The giant hairy birthday gift sequence will bring a lump in the throat of the people hardened by the city life. The Whitney Houston song scene showcases the change brought about in the woman by her father.

The movie is not for everyone. Its length is daunting, pace is languid, humour is subtle. It is well acted, nicely written though. Both the actors, Peter Simonischek and Sandra Huller, are unknown faces for majority of the cine buffs. They bring the characters alive with all their flaws and eccentricities. It is written and directed by the young and talented Maren Ade. This is certainly good cinema, but one day she will make a truly great movie.

Why so serious? Lighten up, is the message that she gives.


(This is the first review in a series of movie reviews of this year’s Oscar Nominees.)


  1. Great review thank you; I can see your really liked it as did I. This is one of the most original European comedies of the year; its a slow-burner, not much happens, but its wonderful to watch the subtle shifts in the father-daughter bond that is being portrayed. People seem to miss how redemptive and loving is the father’s antics and how it leads his daughter out of a sterile career and towards self-recognition. Quirkly, insightful, and charming are my three concluding adjectives.


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