D: Maren Ade / 162m
Cast: Sandra Hüller, Peter Simonischek, Michael Wittenborn, Thomas Loibl, Trystan Pütter, Ingrid Bisu, Hadewych Minis, Lucy Russell, Victoria Cocias, Vlad Ivanov
Winfried Conradi (Simonischek) is a retired music teacher with too much time on his hands and not enough to do. To make his life more “fun” he plays jokes on the people around him. He’s harmless though, and anyway, the people he knows are used to him and his behaviour. The only person he doesn’t see is his daughter, Ines (Hüller), who is working for a firm of business consultants in Bucharest. When she arrives home unexpectedly, Winfried gains a suspicion that Ines isn’t very happy; she pretends to be on her phone rather than socialise with her family. Following the death of his dog, Willi, Winfried decides to pay Ines a visit himself.
He waits for sometime at her company’s offices, until she sends an assistant, Anca (Bisu) to look after him until the evening, when she invites him to a reception for the CEO of a German oil company, Henneberg (Wittenborn); it’s his company that she’s hoping to secure a lucrative contract with. But Henneberg ignores her, and pays more attention to Winfried. At a club afterwards, Henneberg continues by patronising Ines and mocking Winfried. As time goes on, Ines finds having her father around too much of a distraction; the final straw is when he causes her to miss an important business meeting. Feeling unappreciated and unwanted, Winfried decides to go home.
A few days later, Ines is meeting her friends Steph (Russell) and Tatjana (Minis) at a bar when a man asks if he can share his champagne with them. It’s clearly Winfried wearing a wig and false teeth (and calling himself Toni Erdmann), but Ines says nothing, even when he claims to be a life coach. In the days that follow, Winfried appears at her work and insinuates himself into the company. Ines at first believes he’s trying to ruin her life, but strangely, he has some good ideas and she begins to take him with her when she has any meetings. He also goes with her on a company night out, but Winfried is dismayed to see that he’s been right all along, and Ines isn’t happy. To make up for this, he takes her to a Romanian family’s Easter party, where he gets her to sing Whitney Houston’s The Greatest Love of All. But this brings up conflicting feelings in Ines, and later, at a party she’s hosting at her apartment, a problem with her zip leads to a decision that will be far-reaching in more ways than one.
Justifiably nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film at this year’s Oscars, Toni Erdmann is the kind of movie that looks daunting when you first approach it – a German comedy/drama running two hours and forty-two minutes? – but which draws you in and keeps you spellbound from beginning to end. Thanks to a perceptive, well-constructed script by writer/director Ade, it’s a movie that confounds expectations and proves engaging throughout, and it does so by creating two entirely credible and relatable central characters in worn-down Ines and her aging hippy father. When we first see them together, there’s a definite distance between them: Winfried didn’t even know she was going to be visiting. And disappointed, he leaves early. But he’s seen enough to know that he has to make an effort to help his daughter.
It’s this notion, that a parent can still feel responsible for a child even when they’re an adult, is what drives the movie, and what makes it so engaging. Winfried’s idea of helping Ines may be unorthodox, weird even, but it’s also heartfelt and sincere. And he’s not put off when his trying to help her as himself doesn’t work. He adopts a different approach, and discovers that his alter ego is far more effective as a father figure than he is as an actual parent. It’s a lovely twist, and one that keeps the movie from becoming too predictable as Ines struggles to make sense of what her father is doing, and why. And Winfried’s task is made all the more difficult thanks to Ines’ work ambitions, which are being hampered by her boss, Gerald (Loibl). While she tries harder than anyone else to capture the oil company contract, she also has to deal with the casual sexism that exists in her workplace. It’s because she feels she has to put up with all this that makes Winfried’s job all the harder; he has to get her to loosen up.
Ines herself is the movie’s real focus, and she’s one of the most well-developed, and credible, female characters in recent movie memory. Ambitious and yet unsure of those ambitions, in a relationship with colleague Tim (Pütter) that meets her physical needs but not her emotional ones, and caught up in an after-work party lifestyle that makes her feel uncomfortable, Ines is brought to life by Hüller in a performance that is honest (at one point nakedly so), scrupulously authentic, and hugely impressive. When it all gets too much and her defences begin to come tumbling down, Hüller’s portrayal of Ines remains as tightly contained as it’s been throughout, but she adds emotional layers that haven’t been there, layers that provide depth and help explain just how she’s coming to terms with the changes to her life that have long been delayed.
Ines’ relationship with her father is many things: exasperating, dismaying, mortifying, but still a loving relationship, and Ade adds a coda to the movie that perfectly relates the feelings they’ve had for each other all along. In many ways it’s a brave movie, mixing comedy and drama to surprisingly good effect given the melancholy feel the movie has as a whole, and it isn’t afraid to paint either of its two main characters in a negative light. It’s also painstakingly directed by Ade, whose use of space and her placement of the characters in that space hasn’t really been given its due since the movie debuted at Cannes last year. Aided tremendously by DoP Patrick Orth and editor Heike Parplies, Ade has put together a movie that’s as visually arresting as it is intellectually and emotionally stimulating. It’s a beautifully composed movie, with imagery that lingers in the mind long after you’ve viewed it.
Beaten to the Oscar by The Salesman (2016) (no mix-up there), Toni Erdmann is an extraordinary look at the relationship between a father and a daughter that deserves all the awards it’s received, and which channels poignancy and hope through that relationship in ways that are humorous and dramatic, affecting and remarkable, and striking and challenging – and all at the same time. It’s a tremendous achievement by Ade, a movie that quietly amazes as it rewards its audience with two faultless performances, a scenario that never quite goes in the direction you think it will, and which throws in – unexpectedly – a Bulgarian kukeri for good measure. Powerful and appealing, this is a modern classic, pure and simple.
Rating: 9/10 – you’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll be sad, you’ll be lifted up, but you definitely won’t be bored, as Toni Erdmann is a triumph of character building and emphatic storytelling; near flawless in its execution, the movie’s complex emotional shading and refreshing visual style combine with various other carefully applied elements to make a movie that’s both thought-provoking and entertaining.