Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Maren Ade
Stars: Peter Simonischek, Sandra Huller, Michael Wittenborn.
This offbeat and decidedly oddball absurdist German comedy about the dysfunctional relationship between a father and his workaholic daughter has been a hit on the festival circuit and is a clear favourite to collect an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.
Winifried Conradi (veteran Austrian actor Peter Simonischek) is a dishevelled, divorced, sixty something former music teacher with a generous nature, a big heart and a love for practical jokes. But his jokes and fart cushions hide his pain. When his dog dies though he decides to pay his sullen, unhappy and tightly wound workaholic daughter Ines (Sandra Huller) a visit. She works for a consultancy firm, and is currently based in Bucharest, Romania, where she is advising an oil company on how to cut costs by outsourcing services.
Ines herself is trying to cope with working in a rather sexist, male dominated environment. She is forced to laugh at their unfunny jokes and smile at colleagues she dislikes. And she seems permanently glued to her mobile phone. Her job security is threatened by her male colleagues and sexist attitudes, and she is clearly unhappy and frustrated. Winifried’s sudden and unexpected presence is unwelcome, and his antics infuriate Ines and make her uncomfortable. Reluctantly he returns home to Germany.
Shortly after though he returns to Romania complete with a bad wig, false teeth and a baggy, ill-fitting suit, in the guise of the eponymous character. He claims to be a successful motivational coach and he sets out to impress Ines’ friends and colleagues. But he also hopes to show her that she is wasting her life. Their fractious relationship and the way it changes is the central focus of the film. Slowly cracks appear in Ines’ cold and distant façade and she becomes more human.
Toni Erdmann is the third feature film from German director Maren Ade, and marks something of a change of pace from her previous film, the 2009 drama Everyone Else. Her films have always had a semi-autobiographical element to them, and this is also a fairly personal movie as well. Ade has an observational approach to the material, and she serves up some social commentary through a subtle critique of modernisation, capitalism, and the dichotomy of modern Europe. Cinematographer Patrick Orth works in long fluid takes.
Ade avoids overt sentimentality here, and she maintains a delicate balance between the comedic elements of the film and the more dramatic moments. There is a bittersweet ending. This is a subtle satirical comedy, with few laugh out loud moments. The opening scene in which we first meet Winifried is hilarious. But because of his jokey persona we don’t really get to know him or scratch deeply beneath the surface.
The two lead actors are largely unknown outside of Germany, and so are able to immerse themselves into their characters without the baggage or expectations that a more familiar or recognised name would bring to the roles. Their contrasting characters make for an interesting dynamic. Winifried and his alter ego Erdmann come across as a fairly unlikeable buffoon, but Simonischek manages to reveal his vulnerabilities and flaws. According to Ade, the late comedian Andy Kaufman (Taxi, etc) was a huge inspiration for the character’s irritating humour. Huller manages to flesh out her portrayal of Ines with some nicely nuanced touches.
This is a slow-paced film and Ade establishes a more contemplative mood throughout and she avoids sentimentality. But at 160 minutes the film is far too long for what it has to say, and some scenes are dragged out. There are some laugh out loud moments interspersed throughout, but audiences expecting a rib tickling belly laugh may be disappointed.
Toni Erdmann is something of an acquired taste that will not be to everyone’s liking. Indeed many who emerge from a screening will wonder what all the fuss is about. There are rumours that none other than Jack Nicholson is about to emerge from semi-retirement to play the character in a Hollywood remake. No doubt more people will flock to see that version.