REVIEW: Toni Erdmann [2016]

Score: 10/10 | ★ ★ ★ ★

Rating: R | Runtime: 162 minutes | Release Date: July 14th, 2016 (Germany)
Studio: NFP Marketing & Distribution / Sony Pictures Classics
Director(s): Maren Ade
Writer(s): Maren Ade

“That was real fear”

I wasn’t sure what to think upon realizing it was Maren Ade who directed Toni Erdmann, the wild comedy that took Cannes by storm. Her previous film Alle Anderen was very much a drama—a fantastic one at that—and this switch brought intrigue. Now that I’ve finally seen it, however, it’s easy to see the transition wasn’t a difficult one to pull off. This father/daughter tale may have a lot of comedy, but its heart is still steeped in the dramatics of struggling to make love work. For every laugh-out-loud moment of absurdity, surrealism, or just plain effective sarcasm comes an equally effective instance on the other side of the spectrum. Humor becomes a tool to look beyond surfaces as much for her characters as Ade herself.

It’s not there to simply make us laugh. Ade isn’t interested in having her audience in stitches to the point of missing the next line of dialogue; she seeks to give Winfried (Peter Simonischek) and Ines Conradi (Sandra Hüller) a connection to the past. We understand who Winfried is via an opening scene where he answers the door for the postman. He takes one look at the package and starts yelling to his “brother” Toni, asking what he bought before quietly turning to the postal worker to nonchalantly say the as yet unseen sibling was recently released from jail for sending bombs through the post. Winfried revels in a good gag and an even better reaction. He epitomizes “joie de vivre” in attitude and action. He is life.

Sadly he’s also somewhat alone in this trait as the people around him have all left frivolity behind for careers, goals, and adulthood dictated by a capitalistic society striving to always be the best. Winfried rejects that way of living and it most likely cost him his marriage and to some extent his daughter. While the latter lives abroad as a high-powered international consultant hired by oil companies, her mother has remarried a more-or-less humorless man exuding stability and security. All Winfried has now is his ailing mother and ailing dog, vestiges of a life that’s long since surpassed him so his class of middle schoolers now know him better than anyone bonded by blood. It pains him to see such anxiety and stress trapping those he loves.

Ines is of course this phenomenon’s poster child: never home, hardly available by phone, and always conversing with clients. The family’s so used to her being attached to her cell that she can be talking to no one and get away with it to recuse herself from those she already successfully avoids for the other fifty-one weeks of the year she isn’t in Germany. Everyone sees these traits as success—they applaud her accolades and connections as having done well by her. Everyone but Winfried, that is. He sees the sadness underneath the tailored suits and authoritative airs. He sees that his daughter has given herself to this life at the detriment of happiness. Or at least the definition of happiness he holds in his head.

This is a very important distinction Ade does well to implicitly and explicitly instill in her film. Ines confronts her father with his notion of “happiness” when he intrudes on her life in Bucharest uninvited and unannounced. He engages in his trademarked, child-like flights of fantasy to coax smiles from those around him, a pastime that no longer works on her. She’s moved past such shenanigans, dismissing them as examples of immaturity and risks to her professionalism as a businesswoman. She isn’t, however, averse to using him if his humor succeeds with clients and therefore benefits her goals. The result shows how she’s projected a merit-based system on her personal relationships like her professional ones. As soon as Winfried’s charm wanes, she’ll drop him and restructure her strategy.

Not being jovial doesn’t mean she isn’t happy, though. If Winfried stayed home in Germany, Ines probably would have continued moving forward without incident. She would have successfully played the game to victory, showing she could go toe-to-toe with powerful men by breaking them down to her whims. But is that success the same as happiness? Does it allow her to be comfortable in knowing who she is or does it simply prove she can bend a system her way by being what those around her demand? Much like her doting assistant Anca (Ingrid Bisu) constantly asking for affirmation, Ines seeks the same from her boss Gerald (Thomas Loibl) through promotion. She’ll throw her coworker/boyfriend Tim (Trystan Pütter) under the bus if it means proving she’s the best.

So is she in control? About as much as Winfried is as her father. Ines has become someone craving career success—a one-track mind dedicated to rising up her company’s ranks. And he has done the same in context with her by suppressing his zaniness since she’s replaced smiles with looks of pity. They are both lost on a path they have created for themselves, paths built with the goal of survival rather than life in mind. Awkward disappointment is the only outcome their collision in Romania can therefore provide. She cannot drop her devotion to work to appease him and he cannot flip a switch to be stoic or “mature.” So they clash, they fight, and they say their goodbyes with as much warmth as always: none.

And now the real film commences: one propelled by the titular, fictional character Toni Erdmann. Donning a bad wig and fake teeth, Winfried injects himself into Ines’ life as the uncouth man she sees him as yet now augmented with confidence. He cannot breakthrough her defenses as “Dad” but he can keep her off-balance enough as “Toni” to ensure an authentic response in return. He puts on a performance to infiltrate her life rather than remain on the outside. And she looks to turn the tables by forcing him to make good on brash comments made while pretending to be a business coach or ambassador. Winfried is using her this time, stealing her world as a way to both enjoy himself and perhaps shake her from stagnancy.

The ruse works too if only because it enrages her. Ines sees her father’s game as a potential career killer, a problem she must solve by finding ways to regain control in other aspects of her life. This leads to a power play with her beau in a much-talked about sex scene, a power play at work to position herself as integral to the company’s success, and a power play with Winfried by using his alter-ego to her advantage as well. Neither character is willing to let outside forces dictate what they can or cannot do. They are no longer going to be beholden to someone else either by being slaves to telephone demands or by accepting they’re somehow obsolete. It’s all as inspiring as it is hilarious.

I’m talking comedy set pieces big and small, reactionary gags and high-concept oddities. We in the audience are treated to an inspired rendition of Whitney Houston‘s “Greatest Love of All” that’s as blisteringly poignant and pointed to what’s happening as it is gleefully out-of-left-field; a mad-cap naked birthday party revealing the intricacies of private and professional relationships and who truly knows who best; and a metaphorical cleansing of evil spirits through a Bulgarian kukeri just as literal in its catharsis as spiritual. We’re privy to two automatons sleep-walking through their existences that awaken to the glory of unknown possibilities by finally allowing themselves to take a step back and risk normalcy in order to achieve purity. Winfried and Ines discover who they really are hadn’t yet been revealed.

Ade delivers a singularly unforgettable experience that delights in its other-ness while profoundly expressing resonate universality. It’s almost three-hour runtime flies by thanks to central performances by Hüller and Simonischek that no one will ever be able to do justice in the already-planned American sequel. The humor won’t necessarily be for everyone (there were about fifteen people in my screening with only a woman and myself audibly laughing throughout), but it’s infectious if you’re a fan. And the drama unfolding beside it is nothing if not honest, the myriad outbursts of emotion through excess or internalization immensely relatable. Here are two people of different generations caught in a loop only desperation can break. We all need jumpstarts to remember that every end is ultimately also a new beginning.

[1] Sandra Hüller as Ines @ Komplizen Film, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
[2] Peter Simonischek as Winfried @ Komplizen Film, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
[3] Left to right: Sandra Hüller as Ines, Ingrid Bişu as Anca and Miriam Rizea as Flora @ Komplizen Film, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
[4] Left to right: Sandra Hüller as Ines and Trystan Pütter as Tim @ Komplizen Film, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

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