Directed by Maren Ade
Opens December 25
It’s been seven years in the making. German writer-director Maren Ade’s third directorial effort Toni Erdmann has arrived, and it’s certainly worth the wait. It’s billed as a comedy, and is surely uproarious at times, but the humor emerges from depths of sadness, frustration, and transcendence. While subtly dissecting the relationship between an estranged father and his corporate globetrotting daughter, often traversing emotional territories that are difficult to put into words, the film simultaneously explores universal questions of what it means to be happy, what is worth living for. Sure, these are big questions indeed, and Ade isn’t necessarily offering up any answers, but, with a truly unique script, definitive characterization, and plenty of surprises, Toni Erdmann delivers one of the most enthralling and moving cinematic engagements of the year.
Winfried (Peter Simonischek), a middle-aged pensioner, is having a rough time—he’s just lost his sole piano student, his dog dies, and when his daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller) pays a brief visit home from her corporate assignment in Bucharest, it becomes clear that she doesn’t have much time for him. From the very first scene, involving the hilarious deception of a package deliveryman, we learn that Winfried is a practical joker. Initially his sense of humor seems to be all in good fun, but it soon becomes clear that it’s more of a façade for his insecurities. Upon stopping by a family gathering where Ines, consumed on her cell phone, makes her fleeting appearance, Winfried is already left out of the picture—the rest of the family is celebrating her birthday early. His painted face resembling an expired harlequin, with smudged makeup from a school performance that he doesn’t bother to wash off, is hardly amusing; he actually soils his daughter’s blazer when he hugs her. Uncomfortable social interactions provoke him to pop in a set of grotesque fake teeth that he carries in his breast pocket for comic relief, only to be met with eye rolls or exaggerated laughs at best.
Ines and Winfried are uncomfortably reunited when he pays her a previously proposed surprise visit in Bucharest, a visit that further exposes the rifts in their relationship. Their attempts to even spend time together are constantly interrupted by Ines’s responsibilities to entertain high-level clients, or her imperative attendance at business meetings. Even when they do have moments together, Ines is either passive, work-obsessed, irritable, or all of the above. The visit culminates into a disaster of sorts, and, overwhelmingly unwelcome, Winfried makes a sad exit, an exit that also reveals Ines’s emotional repression.
Winfried doesn’t actually leave, though. He turns up as Toni Erdmann, Winfried’s alter ego, a “life coach” and “business man,” with large crooked teeth, long shaggy black hair and black suit in tow. He makes his introduction, imposing himself on Ines and her friends’ cocktail hour, schmoozing and seducing them with charm; just as she doesn’t initially acknowledge him as her father, as to avoid the embarrassment, he refuses to recognize her as his daughter, an act of desperation and resentment. This is only the beginning: Toni begins to make frequent appearances, showing up at Ines’s office and her corporate parties, permeating her everyday life. As his time in Bucharest carries on, the distinction between confident Toni and melancholic Winfried begins to dissolve, revealing even deeper fissures and intricacies.
Toni Erdmann possesses some wildly unpredictable twists and turns; to divulge any more plot would be criminal. It is truly an experience, one that may have you at times simultaneously laughing and crying. It shuffles a number of issues including generational gaps, class gaps, global corporate infiltration and deception, and sexism in the workplace, but essentially Toni is a study of the relationship between a father and daughter, how they grow to accept each other and live with each other as two adults coming from opposite ends of the spectrum. In the most basic sense, as in Ade’s two previous features, the film taps deeply into the complexities of being a human being. While some aspects and events of the film seem dangerously close to being unbelievable, this is surely a study in magnified realism, and it is certainly a riot.