Director: Maren Ade
Cast: Sandra Hüller, Peter Simonischek, Trystan Pütter, Thomas Loibl, Michael Wittenborn, Lucy Russell, Hadewych Minis, Ingrid Bisu
MPAA Rating: (for strong sexual content, graphic nudity, language and brief drug use)
Running Time: 2:42
Release Date: 12/25/16 (limited); 1/27/17 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik | January 26, 2017
Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek) is the most tragic of tragic clowns. He is convinced that he is funny. He has made his life's philosophy one of refusing to take anything seriously. That attitude has wrecked his marriage, put his relationship with his daughter on the skids, and resulted in a life of relative isolation, in which his best friend is his dog and his most significant interaction with another person is when he has a package delivered to his house. This would seem to be the tragedy of one of the two central characters in Toni Erdmann, but these details are not the most important part of it. The real tragedy is simpler: No one thinks Winfried is funny.
When Winfried disguises himself as his alter ego Toni Erdmann to receive that delivery, the delivery man doesn't seem to understand that there's a joke to get. He's a music teacher who has his students dress as skeletons for a concert. Nobody gets the point, if there even is one, although the kids like it.
The rest of what amounts to the prologue of writer/director Maren Ade's screenplay is filled with similar moments. There's always an awkward pause after Winfried makes a joke or does something silly, partly because everyone knows his shtick and mostly because no one but Winfried is amused by the gag. We can take the character one of two ways: He's either an example of defiantly living the way you want to live, regardless of what others think of you, or a warning about failing to realize when the gig is up.
Ade's film is neutral on the subject. It's a story about two extremes, really, and it finds benefits and faults to both ways of living. Ade leans toward the faults, because this is also a comedy.
The other extreme is personified by Winfried's daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller, in an exceptional performance of layer-peeling), who has moved up in the world from her small hometown in Germany to live and work in Bucharest. Ines is a workaholic. She has made a brief sojourn home to celebrate her birthday with her family, and even then, she's taking calls from work in the backyard. Winfried shows up, unaware that the gathering is for his daughter's birthday, without a gift. He suggests that he might surprise her in Bucharest one day to give her a present. She doesn't take it seriously, because her father has never been serious.
After his beloved dog dies, Winfried travels to the Romanian city without warning. He waits in the lobby of Ines' workplace, where she is too busy talking to co-workers to say anything to him. He puts in the ridiculous phony teeth of his Toni Erdmann disguise, just in time for Ines to go upstairs to her office.
There is, of course, another way of looking at the scene, which is that Ines is doing the calculations in her head: Can she get away with making it seem as if she didn't notice her father, or would that cause more problems, such as him trying to get her attention in a showier way? It's clear that Ines doesn't hate her dad, but it's also clear that the two exist at such distinct extremes that trying to meet in the middle would be a challenge for both of them.
That's how the first part of the encounter goes, with Winfried sleeping in the guest bedroom of Ines' apartment and tagging along to various work-masquerading-as-social functions. The awkwardness and tension here are in how Ines doesn't want her father around—without making it too obvious as to hurt his feelings—and how incapable of having socially acceptable interactions with other people Winfried is.
Essentially, this is a lengthy, reserved, and deflating setup to the film's premise and central joke. Having apparently left Bucharest, Winfried shows up at a restaurant where Ines is out with friends, and he is dressed as Toni Erdmann, a successful if foolish businessman looking to make some deals in the city. Basically, it's an excuse for him to follow Ines around and participate in her professional life, which, again, is the only life about which she really cares.
It's not much of a joke, which isn't helped much by the film's extended length. It pays off with surprising dividends, though, on account of the care and specificity that Ade displays in crafting this father-daughter relationship during the story's dual introductory sections (the one in Germany and the other in Bucharest, before Toni shows up). The distance between these two characters, on account of their distinct choices and attitude, is the foundation of the film's comedy, but the film's heart is focused on the irony that, despite their differing personalities, they have both ended up with similar feelings of loneliness and isolation. Ines' only other human connection is a strange affair she's having with a co-worker (Trystan Pütter), while Winfried only has Ines left in his life.
The gags are minor (save for a climactic birthday brunch that spontaneously becomes an exhibitionist meeting, letting Ines literally take off the final layer of her protective shell), but they're not the point (although it is notable that Ade and Simonischek instantly make Winfried/Toni funny when the character needs to be). It's a father teaching his daughter what he sees as important lessons about life through performance art (The film's final shot suggests that the father probably should have been learning some lessons, too). Toni Erdmann is a bit sad, a bit weird, and a bit funny—all in the right ways.
Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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