In Toni Erdmann, Winfried (Peter Simonischek) is an aging prankster with little ambition, except to dress up in zombie makeup and scare the daylights out of his family members. Ines (Sandra Hüller) is his uptight daughter, who works for a consulting firm that helps companies outsource jobs. Ines, who believes that fun is a buzzword, is ruthlessly good at what she does for a living, which makes her bad with people. When her father asks if she is happy, it’s as if no one had ever asked before. ‘Happiness is a strong word,’ Ines dismissively responds.
Taken at face value, the storyline appears familiar: A loving, if slightly unbearable, parent wants to teach his loved ones a lesson about letting go and living in the moment. His family members initially reject the olive branch, but slowly come to see the world through his rose-tinted perspective. You have never seen a movie quite like this one, however.
Directed by Maren Ade (Everyone Else), Toni Erdmann, which is at times painful in its keen observations, is finely attuned to the bitter, bruised relationships that slowly take root, often without our noticing. When the movie opens, it’s clear that Winfried and Ines haven’t seen each other for a very long time. They have different ways of avoiding the renewed relationship. Ines pretends to take a work call on her phone, pacing outside to further demonstrate how extremely busy she is. Winfried deflates uncomfortable situations by slipping into a character, one he seems to have developed as a coping mechanism. Putting on buck teeth – and sometimes a dime-store fright wig – Winfried calls himself ‘Toni Erdmann’.
The limits of their avoidance are tested when Winfried decides to visit Ines in Bucharest, where she is stationed for work, and proceeds to drop in on her life repeatedly as Toni Erdmann. The character describes himself, depending on the occasion, as a life coach or the German ambassador to Romania, even though he looks more like a vampire than a diplomat.
What makes Toni Erdmann the finest comedy in recent memory, so wonderful and beguiling, is the deep undercurrent of sadness that informs its life lessons. Winfried, who has recently lost his dog, has little left to live for. His ex-wife has remarried and his elderly mother is dying. He knows that bringing others joy, even if the gift isn’t accepted, is all there is left.
Although the movie can best be described as ‘sad funny,’ Toni Erdmann is frequently uproarious, featuring two or three of the funniest scenes you’ll find in any movie this year. In one, Ines, after being instructed by her boss to build camaraderie among her co-workers, invites them to her birthday brunch. While getting ready, she gets trapped in her party dress, afflicted with one of those irritatingly long zippers down the back. When the doorbell rings, Ines decides to ditch clothing altogether, telling her guests that letting it all hang out will be good for team-building.
Running nearly three hours, Ade’s film is almost overwhelming in its hopefulness, which is precisely what makes it so necessary. Here is a movie that truly believes in the power of comedy to help us heal. ‘How are we supposed to hang on to moments?’ Winfried inquires in a moment of rare vulnerability. All we can do, as Toni Erdmann shows, is try – even if it means wearing fake teeth and a bad wig to get there.
– Nico Lang, Consequence of Sound