“Are you at least a bit happy here?” Winfried asks his growndaughter in writer-director Maren Ade’s bizarrely affecting tour de force, Toni Erdmann. She’s taken aback by theserious question from her jokester father, who’s just arrived unannounced inBucharest where she’s stationed for work. “Happiness is a strong word,” sheresponds after a perfectly timed silence. The line gets a laugh even if it’srooted in the depths of sadness—and so this pas de deux between father anddaughter begins, sustaining an impossible mix of emotion within any given scenealong the way. From the most uproarious set piece to the subtlest exchange,this is a movie that thwarts expectations at every turn: you never know whomight show up—possibly stark naked—at the front door.
“Buzz” is too weak a word to describe the excitementthat’s been trailing Toni Erdmann sinceits debut at Cannes earlier this year: full-blown cinematic love is moreaccurate. It’s a feat for any movie to woo the snootiest of international cinephilesand promise “mainstream” U.S. appeal—letalone a German art-house comedy with a running time just shy of three hours. Butwhile it’s certainly lengthy, ToniErdmann is so acutely focused, so finely calibrated, that not a single momentfeels superfluous. The film is opening via Sony Pictures Classics on ChristmasDay, fitting for a narrative that tackles—with unparalleled gumption—thespecific breed of love and loathing reserved for family members.
It’s clear from the first time we see Winfried (Peter Simonischek) and Ines (Sandra Hüller) in a room together that timehas only widened the gulf between them. A schlubby, semi-retired music teacher,Winfried lives alone with his shaggy dog somewhere in suburban Germany. If he’sa little lonely, he also seems reasonably content to bumble about prankingpeople—whether terrifying his elderly mother with demonic face paint or tormentingthe local delivery boy. Ines, by contrast, is a tightly wound workaholic—she’s sostressed, in fact, that we see her storm out of an expensive massage on her (attempted)day off at the spa. “I didn’t pay 100 euros to be petted,” she barks. She wearspolished but entirely functional business suits and understands terms like“fun” and “happy” to be buzzwords rather than tangible concepts.
If Winfried’s entire world is contained within walkingdistance, Ines’ knows no geographical bounds. At this particular moment in time,she’s advising a large oil company to outsource their labor and she talks ofrelocating to Shanghai like it would be as seamless as moving into a new apartmentdown the hall—which might actually be true in her case. The more we see of Ines’go-go-global lifestyle, the narrower the scope of her existence appears—namelythat there is no existence outside of work. The few friends she has inBucharest double as business associates and she’d rather watch her no-strings-attachedlover (who also happens to be a coworker) masturbate onto a petite-four than putin the effort required to sleep with him. She may be tethered to her phone but she’sdetached from just about everything else.
In less assured hands (or in any quirky American attempt ata similar logline) Winfried and Ines might come off as one-dimensionalsignifiers of their respective generations, vehicles for some trite “message.” It’sa testament to Ade’s strength as both writer and director—not to mention thestellar performances from both Simonischek and Hüller—that the characters are so fullyrealized, so unpredictably engaging as individuals, that the film’s politicscreep in almost unnoticed. While the central relationship—with all its contradictionsand fissures—forms the crux of the narrative, Toni Erdmann also contains a quietly feminist critique of officeculture and a thoughtful comment on the perils of globalization.
After just a few short hours in Bucharest, Winfried findshis daughter to be so dissociated from herself that she seems alien to him: “Areyou even human?” he asks her seriously at one point. But when his attempt atdirect dialogue fails to land, he tries to save her in the only other way heknows how: by constructing an elaborate (and impressively persistent) ruse. Posingincognito as his alter-ego, “Toni Erdmann”—replete with a terrible wig and hisfavorite pair of false teeth—he begins popping up at all of Ines’ professionaland social engagements. He introduces himself as a “business consultant andcoach,” and while his clownish persona and clumsy name-dropping don’t foolanyone, no one has the nerve—or the heart—to call him out.
Following the initial shock, Ines runs through the gamut ofemotional responses to her father’s antics, even as she has no choice but toplay along when they’re in public. Sometimes her eyes convey deep fear—fear thatthose around her will catch on and she’ll lose her job—other times she erupts intotears of frustration and fits of rage. At other times still, she seems to bequestioning her own sanity. But then there are rare occasions where she appearsto take comfort in Toni’s presence, like he’s her towering, goofy guardianangel and nothing bad can touch her while he’s there. He might also be the onlyman on the planet who can still make her laugh.
Ade’s camera remains defiantly inconspicuous throughout allof this, doing away with formulaic set-ups in favor of seemingly intuitivemovement. Rather than committing to a fixed perspective in advance, she movesas her characters move, which only bolsters the beautiful illusion that theythemselves aren’t entirely sure what might happen next. In one particularly memorablesun-dappled sequence, she loops around them as they circle each other, likeanimals, trying to catch each other’s scent.
Like Ade’s previous work The Forest for the Trees (2003) and Everyone Else (2009), ToniErdmann explores gulfs in communication and the unspoken longing for humanconnection. But it’s specifically embarrassment that becomes the primary modeof exchange, a stand-in for therapy, and eventually a means of self-acceptance.
Perhaps the most apt example is in a knockout scene inwhich Toni ropes Ines (at this point posing as his secretary Miss Schnook) intoperforming Whitney Houston’s “Greatest Love of All” in a room full of strangers.Hüllerhas the pipes to pull it off and the hilariously heartfelt rendition forces hercharacter out of her shell even if it breaks her down. It’s saying a lot that thisdoesn’t even constitute the climax of the movie, which moves on from there intoa truly riotous third act.
For all its outlandish humor and flourishes of surrealism, thedirector and her actors remain steadfast in their commitment to a naturalisticapproach. It’s no surprise that Ade spent seven years making this movie, orthat she needed the full running time to tell it: every inch of space is packedwith painful humor and overwhelming humanity. It’s a treat to see a film so freely embrace such a wide range ofemotions and tonalities without being defined (or confined) by any one of them.Toni Erdmann is seriously funny, yes,but there are also very real emotional stakes behind every joke.