Last spring, when I heard the critical buzz coming out of Cannes for what was dubbed “a three-hour German comedy,” my reaction—like most people’s, I’m guessing—was puzzlement. Was it Monty Python, who first pointed out that German humor is an oxymoron? There was that obvious point, but something else baffled me. When I heard a vague description of the film (about a contemporary father-daughter relationship), I wondered whether a German director had managed to make a critically-acclaimed work that didn’t deal with World War II or the East-West Germany division. It turned out to be so: Toni Erdmann, written and directed by Maren Ade, touches on neither of those historical events. Also, the film is actually not quite three hours long. It is, however, very funny; but the real beauty of Toni Erdmann is that it confounds in more ways than just being a funny German film.

At the center of Toni Erdmann is Ines Conradi (played by Sandra Hüller), a 30-something Aachen woman who lives and works in Bucharest as a business consultant for a German company. If Ines represents a version of the modern German woman—ambitious and serious, but afraid of loneliness and uncertain about what motivates her—then her father, Winfried (played by Peter Simonischek), is an opposite German trope, namely the eccentric, physically comic prankster. Ines and Winfried are in a sense archetypical, as an opposite father-daughter pairing, but these roles are stretched and manipulated throughout the film. The bulk of the story plays out during Winfried’s unexpected visit to Ines in Bucharest. In a hilarious scene, Winfried, disguised with his ubiquitous fake teeth and dark wig—customary props for his jokes and disguises—surprises his daughter (Ines isn’t fooled or amused, thinking her father had already returned to Germany) at a cocktail bar. “My name’s Toni Erdmann,” he tells Ines and her friends, “I’m a consultant and coach.” And so he ends up entangled in his daughter’s life in Bucharest in the coming weeks. Winfried/Toni’s gags and antics are funny (at one point he handcuffs himself to his daughter and then loses the key), but only to a certain extent. The film’s deepest-felt humor comes from the tension between Ines’s tragic seriousness and Winfried/Toni’s carefree foolishness.

The common explanation for the oddity that is German humor (or lack thereof) is that the cold, grave German character isn’t prone to laugh at itself. That’s possible, but unlike say, British dry wittiness or American sarcasm and irony, German humor is more nuanced and difficult to peg down.

I’ve lived in Germany on and off for a few years and speak the language fluently, but I have to admit, I’ve never fully understood the jokes. Friends have shown me clips from German comedians like Otto Waalkes or, worse yet, I was made to sit through the “hilarious” German comedy Der Shuh des Manitu/Manitou’s Shoe (2001). I know these examples aren’t representative, but I use them because as my friends chuckled along while watching them, I sat there confused. For obvious historical reasons, Germans have until recently been hesitant to laugh at themselves (aside from benign personal topics, like language or regional customs). Full-on parodies of Hitler, such as Mein Führer - Die wirklich wahrste Wahrheit über Adolf Hitler/My Führer (2007), have rarely made it to the mainstream and have often been received with skepticism. Accordingly, wit and sarcasm don’t exist to the extent that they do in other cultures. Perhaps to compensate for that, German humor relies heavily on the physical. Toni Erdmann draws on this tradition, but treads a careful line so as not to make it feel cheap.

Winfried/Toni exemplifies the physical comedy tradition. The repeated donning of his false teeth and wig signals his transition to the role of the jokester, Toni Erdmann, but Ade makes it more complex than that. As the film progresses, this transition becomes more figuratively compulsive and sad, rather than funny. Taken alone, Winfried/Toni’s gags would quickly get old, but often they are pushed to the comical absurd, or alternatively—especially through the perspective of Ines—they fall flat. One reason why Toni Erdmann works so well is that it repeatedly heads towards a well-known conceit (the father publicly embarrassing the daughter and then later seeking forgiveness from her, for example), tempting the viewer into familiarity, and then it violates or inverts that conceit by going in a completely different direction. At one point, Ines tries to call Winfried/Toni’s bluff by snorting a line of cocaine in front of him—knowing that, as her father, he either has to break the character of Toni or go along with it. Winfried/Toni takes a third way out: he shrugs, takes a bit of the cocaine on his finger and rubs it on his gums. Ines has no response.

The film is not limited to physical humor though, and it effectively uses this nuanced approach to other types. At times, it verges on the screwball, but then pulls back; it uses situational humor and toys with the absurd, and then quickly shifts to a more serious tone. These shifts in tone have the potential to aggravate, but Ade always seems to know how to balance them. This description might ring familiar as a tragicomedy, in the style of Noah Baumbach or Jason Reitman, but there’s a refreshing absence of irony—much of which stems from Ade’s use of platonic physical humor—in Toni Erdmann that you don’t find in those directors’ films. In Judd Apatow comedies, for instance, there’s always the sense that we the audience must always be in on the joke. We are meant to laugh with the protagonist and laugh at anyone who crosses her. Toni Erdmann, however, is more nuanced. Winfried/Toni is at turns insufferable and endearing, and Ines both pitiful and sympathetic.

Although it’s a German film, almost all of Toni Erdmann takes place outside of Germany. Ade’s previous film, Alle Anderen/Everyone Else (2009), employed a similar technique by having the action take place in Sardinia. While we don’t see a lot of Bucharest, the setting is nevertheless important. From Ines’s perspective (and from the perspective of many German companies), Romania is foremost an emerging market to tap, not a place to consider on a cultural level. The critique of excessiveness and superficiality is made clear in a scene in a nouveau riche Romanian night club, where most of the expats partying are oblivious to the shallowness of their lives. Winfried is above all of this, but instead of being preachy to his daughter about it—and this is where Ade’s use of humor is truly clever—he embraces the absurdity of it: at one point we see him getting into a yellow stretch Hummer that he rented to stay in his character of Toni Erdmann. Ade’s tonal balancing act is also used with this theme. At another point Winfried/Toni wanders off to relieve himself in the woods and ends up being invited to use the bathroom by a Romanian farmer. In this sense, he connects with the local people on a level that Ines is unable to do. Ade has hit at the same idea in two different scenes: first with the absurd and then with the empathetic.

For a while now, it has seemed as though the two Big German Themes, of the Second World War and the East-West split, would dominate serious German cinema forever. There are some exceptions, like the director Fatih Akin, but history, Germany’s more so than most, has a strong grasp and it will be contemplated for a long time. I don’t doubt that there will be many more films dealing with those topics in the future. But I hope that Toni Erdmann and the likes of Maren Ade are the start of a new trend in German cinema—an embrace of both the traditional humor and the seriousness of thematic-driven art. In other words, a New German Comedy.