Toni Erdmann (2016) / Drama-Comedy
MPAA Rated: R for strong sexual content, graphic nudity, language and brief drug use
Running Time: 162 min.
Cast: Peter Simonischek, Sandra Huller, Thomas Loibl, Michael Wittenborn, Trystan Putter, Ingrid Bisu, Hadewych Minis, Lucy Russell, Victoria Cocias
Director: Maren Ade
Screenplay: Maren Ade
Review published February 28, 2017
An astute, seriocomic father-and-daughter story, the German film Toni Erdmann, nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, tells a very human story of the difficulties in trying to maintain a loving bond to one's adult offspring, especially when the adult children are seen as not really living up to the promise of the happiness the parent might want for them as they move on their own through life. Though some of the more absurd moments aren't played for strict believability, the film maintains an earnest and human approach.
Austrian stage star Peter Simonischek (Rubinrot, Sapphire Blue) plays shaggy divorcee Winfried Conradi, an aging and eccentric music teacher known as much for his strange but playful attempts to clown around with others as he is for his ability to instruct. Losing his beloved dog, Winfried seizes the opportunity to reach out to his mostly estranged daughter Ines (Huller, Requiem), an outwardly tough but inwardly insecure workaholic currently on a business trip in Bucharest, Romania, working for a cost-cutting consulting firm trying to court the interest of the CEO of an oil company mulling over a decision to outsource jobs to another country. It's an important client, which makes Winfried's arrival an especially unwelcome event, especially as he embarrasses her by shows up unannounced at social mixers and such, donning fake teeth and a wig, pretending to be someone else, including his mischievous business-man alter ego, Toni Erdmann.
Thoughtfully written and directed, refreshingly, without overt flash by Maren Ade (Everyone Else, The Forest for the Trees), who spins her tale based in part on the character-driven comedy of Andy Kaufman, and in another part on her own experiences with her father, a jokester himself. Winfried refuses to take life seriously, even though his antics tend to push people away more than endear anyone to him, mostly because he is the only one who finds his antics funny. It's to Ade's credit that she is able to paint each of her characters with traits that are both strengths and weaknesses, showing how they are useful in some circumstances, but also how they can backfire in other situations. Though they are polar opposites, with one never taking anything seriously, while the other is all work and no play, they both end up feeling lonely in life, despite individually thinking that the other's way of life is the foolish way to go.
For Winfried, he has a lack of romantic partners (as evidence from his 'adult' shipment we see him get in a particularly funny early scene), and his work is proving to be less and less busy with retirement around the corner and the last of his music instruction avenues deciding to give up suddenly. For Ines, it's a soul-sucking job full of mostly empty evenings alone, with social occasions particularly intense due to the fact that she can't cut loose while courting clients. Being a woman makes it even harder, with the men around her undercutting her suggestions, making disparaging comments, and even engaging in sexual harassment that is seen as nothing serious to engage in, especially from those at the very top of the corporate food chain. That her buffoon of a father in full clown mode is taken more seriously by her colleagues is the ultimate condemnation of the skewed power structure toward the male side.
Beautifully acted by all involved, particularly stars Huller and Simonischek who find just the amount of humor, as well as the sadness, in their continued existence both together and apart, clearly finding it hard to connect, though missing each other's presence when parting ways. The humor is intentionally awkward, both accentuating the absurdity as well as giving layers of heartbreak underneath. "Are you still human?" is a question Winfried posits, somewhat cruelly, upon his daughter, no longer recognizing the young girl he raised, now buried under layers of controlled mannerisms and brainwashed into the corporate mindset. She is indeed human, but humanity has no place in today's global financial outlook, so she keeps whatever feelings she has hidden or ignored, sacrificing her own pursuits and pleasures to keep running in the proverbial hamster wheel that they all do for business.
But cracks do emerge from time to time, as layers of training begin to get peeled away. An impromptu rendition of "The Greatest Love of All", the George Benson classic made famous by Whitney Houston, is both joyous and sad, giving the instant feeling of the good times once shared by father and daughter, while the lyrics cut right to her soul as she hears the message loud and clear that she may have lost that love of herself along the way up the corporate ladder. The last remaining layer is a physical one, as she hosts a business party in her home fully exposing who she truly is to the world, reborn in the same way into which she came into the world.
In addition to that commentary, there are also the messages underneath of how empathy for humanity is often not a consideration for those seeking to benefit the profits for oil-company shareholders, which is also something that troubles Winfried, especially in seeing how his own daughter is fighting so hard to secure a deal that will reap rewards to those who never have to get their hands dirty, while those who work hard and toil for the company will get the axe. There's a poignant scene in the film in which Winfried, in Erdmann role-play, connects with the kind-hearted people who unfortunately live in the surrounding area of an oil field, with promises that their properties will be renovated, only to see their continued exploitation and suffering.
That Erdmann's jokes result in the loss of a job of one of the workers highlights the double-edged sword of his playful remarks, funny to him but seen as serious to others, only makes him feel all the more terrible about the situation. Meanwhile, he imparts one message to the villagers around him that he knows are getting the shaft, both literally and figuratively, from the oil corporation: never lose your sense of humor. It's the only thing that might keep one sane in this terrible, crazy world, especially in a country that houses Europe's largest shopping mall that few in the country can scarcely afford to shop in.
Though heartwarming and funny, as well as relatable in its core family bond, it is a bit odd in its approach, such that it may lose potential viewers early on as it takes its time to tell its story. On that note, the unrushed, near three-hour run time, usually reserved for epics, may also dissuade some from even undertaking this relatively intimate film. It's an incisively funny but achingly rooted in deep pain and loneliness; it's as uncomfortable but erudite form of dramedy you'll see these days. Don't let the epic length of the film, winnowed down from over 100 hours of footage shot by Ade, dissuade you from enjoying one of the best films of 2016.
©2017 Vince Leo