Directed by: Maren Ade.
Written by: Maren Ade.
Starring: Peter Simonischek (Winfried Conradi / Toni Erdmann), Sandra Hüller (Ines Conradi), Lucy Russell (Steph), Michael Wittenborn (Henneberg), Thomas Loibl (Gerald), Trystan Pütter (Tim), Hadewych Minis (Tatjana), Ingrid Bisu (Anca), Vlad Ivanov (Illiescu).
Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann is one of the great comedies of recent years – and also one of the longest at nearly three hours. That length is usually death to a comedy – most of which start to feel kind of played out at around the 90 minute mark, and can feel deadly if they hit two hours. And yet, in the case of Toni Erdmann’s, it’s length’s is one of its greatest strengths – as it really does allow you time to get to know its two central characters in detail – which makes the comic set pieces (and the last hour has two of the greatest I’ve ever seen) hit harder, both in terms of making you laugh, and making you feel something deeper for these two characters. The fact that Ade is able to pack so much more into its runtime – so effectively – actually makes you wonder how she was able to do it in just 162 minutes.
The story is about a work-alholic, 30 something year old woman, Ines (Sandra Huller) – a German, now living in Bucharest, Romania – and working on a presentation to keep a major contract with an oil company. Her lonely father, Winfried (Peter Simonischek), is a teacher and a practical joker – he enjoys donning disguises – including ridiculous false teeth – and making everyone around him laugh – the problem being it seems like that isn’t very many people anymore. He shows up in Bucharest uninvited and unannounced – and Ines does her best over the course of a long, awkward weekend, to both do her job – and please her father. At the end, he supposedly goes home – but not really. He’ll show up again – now in disguise as “businessman and life coach” Toni Erdmann, complete with a horrible wig and even worse false teeth – and follow her around. She doesn’t exactly play along – but she doesn’t out him either to any of her friends or colleagues – thinking, probably rightly, that the truth would be worse for her than simply putting up with this vulgar idiot her father is pretending to be. Through the course of the movie, both of them do things designed to get other each other’s skin.
The film is mainly about this fraught, father-daughter dynamic – which is not something we see too much of in movies, which seem to like to stick along gender lines (father/son or mother/daughter movies are the norm). At first, the two of them seem so different – Winfried is more of a free spirit, who says and does whatever he wants, and just wants to have fun. Ines is all business, professional and courteous, more competent than most of the men around her. Yet, both of them are playing roles – under both of their very different demeanors, are two lonely, depressed people. They are both putting on an act for everyone around them at all times, and not letting anyone see them too closely. We see this play out in various ways throughout the film.
The fact that Ade can then add in a lot of other stuff to this father/daughter narrative is even more impressive. The film is a fairly clear picture of the misogyny still faced by many women in the business world – from the way Ines realizes she is taken more seriously at a work site when she shows up with her idiot father in his business man guise than when she was there before by herself, or the way she reacts to her co-worker and sometimes sex partner when he tells her that their boss told him not to fuck her too much, because he doesn’t want her to lose her edge (that scene by itself, is an understated comic gem). The film certainly doesn’t make Ines into some sort of flawless character either though – she can be downright cold and uncaring, not just to her father, but also to the workers who are going to lose their jobs if the company listens to her.
It’s all of this – the close observation of her characters and the world they inhabit – that makes the final hour of Ade’s film so brilliant. By this point, she has firmly established them – and then she completely lets lose in a sustained, ambitious go-for-broke finale that has a one-two punch of a rendition of one of the cheesiest pop songs in history, and a naked brunch, that you aren’t likely to forget. Then, she wraps it all up with a scene that while perhaps isn’t a particularly happy ending, its certainly something – and shows perhaps how both of these characters have grown, if only a little bit. This is one of the year’s best film.