Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann is as elusive as its title. On the surface, it is a German film about the strained relationship between a father and his adult daughter, but the filmmaker, through rich storytelling and hilarious-yet-sincere antics, has made her film so much more. Ade treats audiences with a surprise around every corner, especially through the dynamically zany performance from Peter Simonischek and the oppositely calculated emotional instability of actress Sandra Huller. A saga of relationships, both personal and professional, fits this drama in its 2 hour and 42 minute runtime. This film is worth every minute for its genuine moments of humor and clarity about the tough transition we go through when our children or parents begin to seem like strangers in our lives.
Toni Erdmann follows a retiring piano and school teacher, Winifred Conradi (Simonischek), who has lost touch with his thirty-something daughter Ines (Huller) ever since she moved away to become a big time business consultant. On a whim, Winifred decides to visit his daughter where she is working in Bucharest and crash lands in her busy life. After a few days of awkwardness and feeling like an unwelcome guest, Winifred seems to let his daughter alone. To her surprise, though, he pops back up unexpectedly as a man he has invented named Toni Erdmann – equipped with wacky false teeth and a wig – and reinvents the idea of being a stranger in his daughter’s life. From there, the two re-evaluate not only their relationship, but also themselves and who they’ve become.
Countless films attempt to capture the reality of growing up and growing apart, but none have ever done so quite as eloquently as Ade with Erdmann. It is an awkward transition and Ade captures that discomfort tactfully. There is a dual universality and absurdity at play within the film. Familiar moments of parent-child strife bring the audience in relation to the dynamic, particularly one scene in which Winnie asks his daughter if she is happy in Bucharest, to which she replies defensively, asking him for his exact definition of happiness and what should make her happy. On the other side are unexpected silly moments, most of them built into Winnie’s Toni Erdmann character, layering in false identities, zany getups, wild partying, and even a full suit of fur at one point. The brilliance, however, is the way Ade lightens the mood of every dark moment, and subdues or normalizes every silly one, making each awkwardness a stepping stone in their relationship and lives. Ade’s frantic, yet melodic score also tells a similar story of drama infused with frank comedy, exposing the messy collision of their two worlds.
Likewise, this film is particularly memorable for its excessive nudity and sexual content, two elements that Ade manages to de-sexualize almost completely. The film’s single sex scene is utterly lacking in connection or desire, but is characterized by the mechanics of the act as Ines and her secret boyfriend go through the motions. Sex and nudity is used as visual markers to flag Ines’ character development – like with her father and Toni Erdmann, Ines simply glosses over sex and the naked body. This is also apparent in a later scene in which Ines spontaneously, yet unemotionally, uses full nudity to cut the tension of an important business gathering. Calculated and edgy up until then within all of her interactions, the absurdity around Ines eventually closes in on her and forces her to look at herself truthfully for maybe the first time.
Sandra Huller is brilliant in the role, filtering emotional tension into her character’s otherwise automated actions. She is the foil to Peter Simonischek’s Winnie/Toni, but softens her character’s coldness with her own fleeting emotional breaks (one comes in an unwilling performance of Whitney Houston’s ‘Greatest Love of All’), and eventually, with diabolical frivolity in an attempt to challenge her father. Despite her chronic seriousness, Huller keeps Ines charming in her own way, and provides Simonischek with an open springboard for his antics to land. Simonischek himself oozes charm throughout. He makes Winnie/Toni impossible not to love, and forces us to look at fatherhood in new ways, and see the father-daughter relationship uniquely through his eyes. His little pranks, though outrageous at times, are always grounded in his character and genuine personality. Ade is also largely responsible, shedding light on a side to the father-daughter relationship that has gone highly unexplored within film – one that is all at once deep, clumsy, troublesome, and sincere.
Verdict: 5 out of 5
Maren Ade somehow manages to create a reality rooted in escapism, a comedy of errors infused with difficult truths and real feeling. Toni Erdmann is at many times silly and laugh-out-loud funny, but its characters aren’t exactly in on the joke, bolstering the film’s realism and glimpses into true emotion and catharsis. Huller and Simonischek are perfect opposites and pull surprising moments out of each other’s characters while staying true to Ade’s vision – for 2 hours and 42 minutes, it is Ade’s world, and we are all just living in it.