The German comedy Toni Erdmann makes the best case imaginable for the importance of tone. The premise is dismayingly conventional. Sandra Hüller plays Ines Conradi, a severe, ultracontrolled business consultant based in Bucharest and tasked with helping a multinational corporation justify the layoff of hundreds of laborers. Out of the blue comes her father, Winfried (Peter Simonischek), who met her briefly at a family gathering in Germany (he and Ines’s mother are divorced) and evidently decided that they needed some father-daughter time. Early scenes have established that Winfried is a practical joker and that he has an extroverted alter ego: “Toni Erdmann,” who wears false snaggleteeth and a black fright wig that might have been sewn together from the hair of a thousand warts. So there is Ines at a Bucharest club or restaurant, earnestly discussing business with her stuffy superiors, and suddenly, in the background, appears “Toni Erdmann,” lumbering toward them like some snuffling beast. While “Toni” takes the conversation in some bizarre new direction, Ines inwardly writhes. The intention, of course, is to get her to stop writhing and crack a smile, perhaps participate in the joke. Perhaps she will even come to terms with the emptiness of her life and ambitions.
An American studio making Toni Erdmann would certainly cock it up from the start. The father would declare his intentions instead of simply showing up, sans preamble. The pacing and music would make it plain that the movie was meant to be funny, with sprightly music and whacking reaction shots. The Germans — or at least this German, the writer and director Maren Ade — do it much differently. The style is uninflected, the acting deadpan. Someone peeking in at the screen for a few minutes would not even know it was a comedy. It would probably look like a flat business drama, and a slow one. Toni Erdmann clocks in at a whopping 162 minutes, which my genius for subtraction tells me is 18 minutes short of three hours, the length of many biblical epics.
Flat, sober, paced like an art picture, its themes never directly announced: Toni Erdmann should be deadly. Instead, people scream at the screen. Really, they go crazy. When Toni’s not around, you wait in giddy anticipation. When he is, he’s almost funnier for what he might say than for anything he does. Hüller is a superb straightperson. She’s so buttoned-up that it took me a little while to realize how fabulously sexy she is, and she wisely refrains from hysterics when her father — a lord of misrule — upends her life. Midway through the film there’s a flabbergasting sex scene between her and a smugly impersonal boyfriend. He tells her that her boss worries that too much sex would make her lose her business edge, and she regards him, suddenly, with the chill contempt of Ilsa, She Wolf of the S.S. What happens next is not for spermatophobics. The movie’s other climax is a birthday party in which people attempt to act normal while very abnormal things are happening around them. Try not to laugh, I dare you.
There are reasons for ambivalence about Toni Erdmann. Winfried is presented as a savior, but patriarchal sabotage against a woman trying to make it in the business world fits snugly into the feminist-backlash category. There’s an ignoble tradition of men calling successful women “humorless” and portraying their own aggression (“Why can’t you laugh at yourself?”) as life-affirming. I’m not sure Maren Ade (a woman) would disagree with all that, though, which is why she doesn’t romanticize the deranged patriarch or fix him up at the end with some woman who can appreciate his noble japery. In any case, she needs “Toni.” He functions for the movie the way he does for Ines’s life, deflating the pomposity and bringing joyful release. Those 162 minutes fly by.
*This article appears in the December 12, 2016, issue of New York Magazine.