As a life lesson, Toni Erdmann is a unique and quirky offering that continually surprises. It contains the mundane and the outrageous. The constant is humour – at times great dollops of it, interspersed with a gentler comic scene or two.
German dad Winfried (Peter Simonischek) doesn’t see much of his hard-working corporate consultant daughter Ines (Sandra Huller), who works in Bucharest. A man with a keen sense of fun, Winifried is a music teacher who suddenly finds himself without a regular student. When his old dog passes away, Winifried decides to pay Ines a surprise visit. It’s an awkward move because, as a serious career woman, Ines is working on an important project. The two appear to have very different values and priorities, and frequently don’t see eye to eye. Practical joker Winfried loves to annoy his daughter with his corny pranks. What’s worse are his little jabs at her routine lifestyle of long meetings, hotel bars and performance reports. Father and daughter reach an impasse and Winfried agrees to return home to Germany.
Enter flashy “Toni Erdmann“: Winfried’s smooth-talking alter ego. Disguised in a tacky suit, weird wig and even weirder fake teeth, Toni barges into Ines’ professional life, claiming to be her CEO’s life coach. As Toni, Winfried is bolder and doesn’t hold back, but Ines meets the challenge. The harder they each push, the closer they become. In all the madness, Ines begins to understand that her eccentric father might deserve some place in her life after all.
All of writer/director Maren Ade’s films are partly autobiographical in the sense that he takes something he knows as a point of departure. When it comes to the subject of family, he couldn’t escape his own family while writing it. “There’s nothing you know better than where you came from,” Ade says. “You only have one family and the relationship between parents and children is for life; it’s hard to escape that.”
That’s what happens with Ines in Toni Erdmann. She thinks the family in which she grew up holds nothing of relevance in her present life. They’re all trapped in their assigned roles and their interactions play out according to rigid, almost ritualistic patterns none of them can escape. Winfried’s impulsive transformation is a bold attempt to break out of the mold of the father-daughter relationship. Toni Erdmann is born out of desperation.
Humour is often a way of coping with life’s travails, and as such it is always also a product of pain. Winfried is unable to get through to his daughter any other way. The initial thing that stuck me is how anyone could come up with such a script. It is obtuse and exacting at the same time.
The story is one thing, but then you need high calibre actors to pull it off and not descend into high farce. The two leads are superb and unrelenting. They are the ones responsible for giving Toni Erdmann nuance and layers of enjoyment. His joie de vivre and her awkwardness play off magnificently against each other. You could reasonably argue the picture didn’t need to be 2 hours 42 minutes in length and I don’t disagree. It could readily have been truncated. But within the running time there are sequences that you wish could just continue – such was my level of enjoyment.
This is a slow burn picture that develops and goes off in a direction I defy you to pick. At a pinch it is difficult to equate Toni Erdmann to anything else I have seen. Suffice to say I liked it a lot and laughed aloud frequently. Hey, all too often life is, indeed, too serious. Watch this and it will give you a fresh take on the corporate treadmill. Rated M, it scores an 8 out of 10.
Director: Maren Ade
Cast: Peter Simonischek, Sandra Hüller
Release Date: 9 February 2017