Director: Maren Ade
Screenplay: Maren Ade
Starring: Peter Simonischek, Sandra Hüller, Ingrid Bisu, Michael Wittenborn, Thomas Loibl, Trystan Pütter, Hadewych Minis, Lucy Russell, Vlad Ivanov, Victoria Cocias
Runtime: 162 Minutes
It’s an unusually hard task when asked to explain what makes Toni Erdmann – a German-Austrian comedy-drama that concerns the relationship between a jokester father, Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek), and his workaholic daughter, Ines (Sandra Hüller) – not just a great film, but a modern masterpiece.
On the surface of its plot synopsis it sounds like something serviceable but trite; In an effort to reconnect with his daughter, Winfried surprises her with an extended visit during an already stressful time, and instead of leaving when asked, he decides that the best thing to do would be to bother her some more under the guise of a character called Toni Erdmann; an apparent life coach and entrepreneur who he brings to life through the use of a shocking black wig and false teeth.
A premise that in the hands of a western filmmaker might come across as a supremely torpid farce, yet against so much preconception concerning this film’s already rapturous recognition across Europe, Toni Erdmann works on so many more levels than is immediately apparent.
On a comedy level, its closer to the deadpan styling’s of situational comedy as Simonischek’s Toni Erdmann dodders about at prestigious events and parties sharing absurd anecdotes of dental architects and turtles. But the comedy of these scenes is only a smaller part of a much larger and more affecting story.
The excruciating embarrassment that descends upon Ines is clear as we share in her experience of the walking nightmare that is their relationship; she has simply outgrown her father’s tired antics and their relationship is awfully strained as they try to bridge an emotional gap that neither is fully invested in anymore. But Winfried can tell that there is a deep well of loneliness that has consumed his daughter and that the uncongenial attitudes of her work life – of which is humiliatingly impersonal and sexist in approach – have destroyed her personal life and any real connection that she feels with other human beings. His mission and the films are to make her feel happy again whether she wants to or not.
What elevates the film and its premise beyond all comprehension though are the remarkable direction and screenplay of Maren Ade. Her complicated characters display a genuinely sincere atonement with the messiness of human interaction and familial ties, and she lingers on scenes and moments for just a few seconds more than is comfortable, emphasising the oppressive realism of the world that is hosting this cartoon character who staggers in and out of the story. While the comedy unfolds in set pieces of an increasingly ridiculous nature, she shoots the film with the grounding of a drama where everything that’s happening could equally be read as a devastatingly sad tragedy.
The natural realism of its presentation is strengthened by its two leading performances. Peter Simonischek is remarkable as both the stunted father figure and his bizarre alter ego. But the film belongs to Sandra Hüller, whose range and complex emotional underpinning of this incredibly sad and disconnected character charts the reconnection between father and daughter in a frightfully believable manner – from her prim and proper demeanour slowly coming undone, to her nervous tick of answering a phone that never rings.
The screenplay is a joy of sequences and interactions between characters, from dining sessions and pranks with handcuffs to a spontaneous naked party and one of the most excruciatingly embarrassing – yet revealing and soul barring – renditions of Whitney Houston ever put to screen. Stretched over an initially obscene length of 162 minutes that at first seems daunting and extraneous, but on reflection feels like every single scene was absolutely essential in adding up to the poignancy of its climactic moments.
Toni Erdmann is a difficult experience to categorise because it doesn’t entirely fit into any set category. It’s surrealist, farcical, hilarious, shattering, truthful, bizarre yet incredibly authentic. There will be few films this year that might affect you in quite the same way, with movements and sentiments that will never be shaken or forgotten.