As a German-Austrian production, Toni Erdmann by Maren Ade is an unlikely film to become every critic’s darling. Yet, international recognition is soaring, so it’s about time to have a look at the movie that everyone seems to love.
Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann has been playing in theaters in my city for over three months straight now. Given the typically fast rotation of movies nowadays, that alone is completely stunning. Add to that the facts that this film is the German competitor for the Academy Awards, that it won this year’s Grand Prix of the International Federation of Film Critics, and that 177 international critics polled by the BBC voted it among the best 100 films of the 21st century, and you have a true sensation for German contemporary cinema. So what is all the fuss about? With Toni Erdmann entering its fourth month on the big screen, I finally had to go and find out for myself.
One thing can – and perhaps should – be said right at the beginning: Toni Erdmann is a strange film, a very unconventional film. Cloaked as a comedy-drama, its script pushes the traditional means of both genres to such extremes that the resulting movie is a painful pleasure to watch—an emotionally confusing ride that lasts for more than two-and-a-half hours on the screen, and for much longer after you leave the cinema. The comedy often borders on the absurd, and the drama feels positively existential at all times. It is all too easy to lose orientation in Ade’s puzzling screenplay. Why are we even laughing? And why does it hurt at the same time?
Toni Erdmann tells the story of music teacher Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek). Equipped with a bizarre sense of humor, divorced from his wife and estranged from his daughter, he falls into a crisis when his dog dies. He decides to go and visit his daughter, Ines (brilliant in every scene: Sandra Hüller), who works in Bucharest, Romania. Once there, Conradi begins to turn Ines’ life upside down: Her glossy world, defined mostly by her career as a business consultant, cannot incorporate an element as strange as her father. As the chasm between father and daughter becomes more and more obvious, Winfried’s practical jokes become increasingly invasive and extreme. He finally takes on the fake persona “Toni Erdmann”, trailing his daughter and introducing himself at receptions as businessman, life coach, or the German ambassador. In his version of things, Ines becomes his client—or his assistant. Winfried talks to her business partners, her colleagues, her lover, never giving away the fact that he is actually her father.
The characters that interact with – or react to – “Mr. Erdmann” are typically as perplexed as the film’s audience. While the former might be wondering who that strange man with the heavy German accent and the casual shirts really is, the latter can’t help asking themselves: What is he playing at? Meanwhile, his daughter asks herself – and him – whether Winfried has come to Romania with the intent to destroy her life. It seems like a fair question at the time, but Ines doesn’t get a reply. Even more importantly, she doesn’t seem to actually want a reply. Living without someone can be easier than having that someone in your life, and between business meetings, client dinners and days at the spa, it is comfortable enough for Ines to forget about her quirky, lonely, middle-class father and the mediocre life he leads back in Germany.
Of course, Winfried has not come to Romania to destroy his daughter’s life, but, maybe, to mend their relationship. Yet, one of the questions that Ade’s film seems to ask and that repeatedly throw its audience off balance is this one: Would it actually be so wrong if Winfried destroyed not Ines’ life, but her career? If he saved her from the physically, mentally and spiritually draining routine of a job that turns her into a human shark? If he salvaged whatever is left of a real person underneath that perfectly attired and made up surface? – The answer to these questions can’t be a simple one, and, consequently, Ade’s screenplay does not lull its audience into phantasies of social kitsch.
Ade does, however, find very strong images for her characters and their inner turmoil by putting a great deal of emphasis on their bodies: Winfried, from the very first scene, is portrayed as someone who likes to take on different personas—donning wigs, fake teeth, and, in the end, a costume that turns him into a faceless creature. His alter egos become increasingly obscure, provocative and unsettling. Ines, on the other hand, tries to look perfect, shiny and immaculate every single day, hiding her emotional – and even physical – wounds under smart suits and seamless dresses. The film’s only sex scene shows her in complete, rational control not only over her own mind and body, but also over her partner’s: When she realizes that sleeping regularly with a colleague could harm her business attitude, she rejects him, forcing him instead to masturbate in front of her. A narrative turning point in the movie is finally reached when one day, she expects guests for brunch and opens the door stark-naked. Asking everyone else to undress, too, Ines suddenly creates a sense of intimacy that is otherwise so lacking in the world she moves in—and that is at once, again, bewildering to the viewer.
Toni Erdmann could end then and there, with that self-revelation of Ines’, but it doesn’t. It could end with that one wonderful hug that father and daughter share, but it doesn’t. It could end without ambiguity, without any open questions, but it doesn’t. And all of these things, I strongly suspect, contribute to the greatness of Toni Erdmann. This, for once, is a film that really deserves much of the praise it gets. Has Maren Ade created one of the greatest films of our age? Superlatives are a tricky thing, as are the rose-tinted glasses through which one often sees a new and critically acclaimed film. If Toni Erdmann will be remembered quite as enthusiastically as it is received at the moment, only time will tell. Meanwhile, it is certainly a movie worth watching from a country that could use more filmmakers like Maren Ade.
Toni Erdmann (DE/AT 2016). Directed and written by Maren Ade. Cinematography: Patrick Orth. Starring Peter Simonischek and Sandra Hüller. 162 min.