On paper, it’s difficult to conceive how the premise of Toni Erdmann will support its considerable 162-minute runtime. “Practical joker Winfried loves to annoy his daughter with corny pranks” may not sound like the basis for one of the most sensitive, precise and confidently directed films of recent times. That’s exactly what makes Toni Erdmann so miraculous, finding stable footing in the face of extreme precariousness. With just a slight overstep, it could have descended into farce, but the deft handling of director Maren Ade simply does not allow it.
As in Ade’s previous, also marvellous Everybody Else (2009), the dynamics of interpersonal relationships are a focal point. Where Everybody Else examined a romantic relationship’s disintegration, Toni Erdmann sees a relationship between a father and daughter undergo reconstruction. The film opens with our first encounter with Winfried (played by Viennese Burgtheater stalwart Peter Simonischek), a divorced, semi-retired piano teacher, who Ade described in an interview with Mubi’s Daniel Kasman as being typical of “the postwar, anti-authoritarian but still belonging to the middle-class” generation of Germans, who “wanted something different for their children.” The opening scenes establish two crucial facts about this curious, ruddy-faced man. One: he loves a joke (he pulls a lame switcheroo prank on a nonplussed courier). Two: he has a lot of time on his hands (his only piano student quits on him). Time that his daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller), a busy Bucharest-based corporate consultant, does not have.
Their first interaction is at an impromptu birthday celebration for the briefly returned-home Ines at the tastefully appointed home of her remarried mother. When Winfried asks how things are going in Bucharest, she suggests he ring the doorbell some time and see for himself. It’s a casual invitation Ines clearly did not expect Winfried to take her up on, when, sure enough, he rocks up in Romania. He proceeds to embarrass her at work functions with his shaggy appearance and eccentric behaviour, and she quickly becomes frustrated with the chaos he introduces into her high-pressure world of carefully considered professionalism. Sensing this, Winfried does not retreat. Instead, he becomes something like the extreme outward embodiment of Ines’ embarrassment, resurfacing with a conspicuous wig and false teeth as Toni Erdmann, his “life coach” alter ego who interrupts Ines’ life with uninhibited, anarchic fervour.1
This act of provocation by Winfried is borne of good intentions, out of a kind of compassionate desperation to get closer to his daughter. Indeed, much of the humour and beauty of Toni Erdmann arises out of Ade’s painful yet sympathetic rendering of human desperation. Screenplay and performances aside, Ade achieves this by taking her time. She has a knack for letting scenes play out further than is comfortable, but never far enough that the film loses its grip. This affords Toni Erdmann the luxury of detail, fleshing out the characters’ inner worlds, going into the minutiae of Ines’ work, which grants the film a realism that strengthens its impact and prevents Winfried’s farcical hijinks from derailing the film.
The film builds wonderfully into a truly great final act, one that is ecstatically funny, poignant and manages to elegantly synthesise everything preceding it. It’s anchored by a set of comic set-pieces that see Ines take a leaf out of Winfried’s book in a series of bold, liberating acts. These acts see her break through the crippling structures of what she thinks is expected from her—not only from her father, but from men, her female friends and her colleagues, too. This breakthrough begins not with Ines’ now-infamous rendition of Whitney Houston’s “The Greatest Love of All”,2 but in an earlier sex scene between Ines and her lover-slash-colleague Tim in a hotel room. Sprawled on a gaudy green-and-yellow-striped couch, she instructs Tim to pleasure himself onto a plate of room service-delivered petit fours on the floor beneath her. It’s particularly satisfying to observe Ines relish this sexual power play, as it follows numerous instances of workplace sexism, a male colleague calls her an “animal”, for example, and she’s not-so-subtly encouraged that making herself sexually available might help close a deal.
In the final scene, back in Germany, the raucousness of the previous two hours in Bucharest subsides into an affectionate calm. Ines and Winfried are reunited after a death in the family, and share a private moment in the leafy backyard of a relative’s home. They talk about life in philosophical terms, Ines tries on Toni’s false teeth, and there’s a sense of mutual acceptance having settled between them. Winfried runs off to fetch his camera to capture the moment, and with that, the film ends. It’s an ending of beautiful, confident simplicity—the kind of ending, like that of Rohmer’s The Green Ray, that directors are remembered by. Maren Ade should be remembered for creating something quite special with Toni Erdmann: a new classic of German cinema.
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