Starring: Peter Simonischek, Sandra Huller, Ingrid Bisu
Director: Maren Ade
Running Time: 164 mins
Synopsis: High-flying business consultant Ines (Huller) never finds the time to see her estranged father Winfried (Simonischek), so he decides to drop in on her unannounced just as she attempts to clinch an important deal. Although the method he chooses in order to spend time with her involves a bewigged alter-ego called Toni Erdmann.
To really and truly appreciate film I find it is always preferable to have no pre-conceived notions before you enter that darkened room. Sure you can watch the trailers and read the synopsis but often those key marketing tools can mask how captivating or complex a film really is. Just take Toni Erdmann, reading the synopsis above and I would imagine only a small number of you would find that appealing. A nigh on 3 hour German comedy-drama with no score, little in the way of incident and a lead character who spends the majority of the film in an eccentric wig and fake buck teeth does not scream must-see. This is unfortunate as the film is rich with parental dynamics, mid-life frustration, female office politics and finding the simple joys in life, not to mention has some of the funniest moments I’ve seen in a film this decade.
Toni Erdmann sets its stock out immediately with the opening scene. A throwaway moment in most films, but here it lays out all you need to know about lead character Winfried. Answering the door to a delivery man, he is a larger than life figure, literally, shuffling and wheezing with a resigned melancholy. Referencing post bombs and leaving mid-conversation to transform into his apparent “brother” it is also clear he is a bit of a practical joker. This scene is representative of the film as a whole. Low-key, a delicate balance of humour with wry observation and goes on just a little bit too long. But this is not a slight, the length only adds to the charm and incisiveness of the picture. Throughout Toni Erdmann, scenes go on at least 3/4 mins longer than what typical editing fosters in dramas, but it allows the film to create a naturalism and an intoxicating feel that is thoroughly absorbing.
Soon enough we meet Winfried’s daughter Ines but it is evident that tensions exist between them. Consistently on the phone and never truly communicating in a heartfelt manner, Ines is cold to the touch. Upon spying her pretending to make a phone call it is apparent to Winfried that Ines may not be as controlled and strong as she portrays. Following her to Bucharest unannounced, the awkwardness as he staggers into her is almost overwhelming. Their relationship is beautifully sketched out, with swathes of it shown through a look or a physical movement rather than an open dialogue.
As we see more of Ines insular lonely life the film subtly and smartly opens up into so much more than a father/daughter tale. In being the lead in a potential outsourcing project for a big client (in layman’s terms the best way to cut staff numbers down) she is the sole female voice in a sea of testosterone driven business folk. The sexist pressure she is subjected to is sometimes brutal to watch, with Huller exceptional in showcasing the weight and pain this causes her. Ines is a woman completely and hopelessly lost, in a career that offers only snippets of joy (of which said moments of joy are hard fought), a father she needs but cannot understand, and a life of unfulfilled loneliness. At times her misery can be a tad all encompassing with only the films’ love of absurdity stopping it from tipping things over. In one of these moments of palpable sadness she pushes Winfried away when he indirectly causes problems at work.
Winfried, however, is not going to let her go so easily. Unexpectedly and with a reveal of absolute joy he reappears as the caricature Toni Erdmann. Calling himself a business coach, although that story changes with each new person he meets, Ines immediately sees through the charade. Through sheer will and persistent pestering she finds an almost welcome warmth and stability in Toni. By removing the barriers of seeing her father and the pressure that instils she can actually let down her guard to be truly honest with herself. This love of the ridiculous builds and builds to a crescendo of immense power, wherein a routine birthday brunch turns into a nude party in the films’ biggest laugh, but followed with a scene of emotional nudity that disarms.
Simonischek is key in finding the humanity in the madness. A wounded animal, he seduces with his love of making people laugh, his unwavering faith in his daughter’s strength and the need to connect. Not to mention a comedic timing that is lethargic at times, witty at times, but always truthful to the moment. The cast around are all strong, each given a chance to shine, whether it is Ines loyal but sheepishly pleasing assistant (a stunningly beautiful Ingrid Bisu), her sexually confident colleague Tim (their sex scene wilfully subverts the usual male centric gaze and will reconsider your love of petit fours) or Thomas Loibl as the bullish boss. They all help to populate this world of magnified human weirdness.
Maren Ade, who also writes here, has conjured up a real magic trick with this film. It is a singular work, but one that never offers up any directorial flair. A little flat cinematography wise and almost (I reiterate almost) uncomfortably long, she has confidence enough in her words and her actors to drive the film forward. It routinely swerves left to unexpected realms of tragedy, one scene with Winfried’s dog is shot with restraint and potency, but never shies away from the sheer absurdity of humanity. In its final moments, as father and daughter find comfort in performance, Ade reveals a loving tribute to finding the grace in the little moments, of finding life’s meaning in the preposterous, of letting sadness sharing space with happiness. Although the very last shot confirms that that is not an easy battle to wage. Now would you have got all that from the synopsis?!
Verdict: Weird, thoughtful and affecting. Toni Erdmann defies expectations at every turn, offering up sly observations with a delicate balance of comedy and drama. It will seep into your thoughts and nestle there, a triumph!