It’s a sweet and simple idea: befuddled father attempts to reconnect with his workaholic daughter and through resolving their differences, blah, blah, etc. Sweet, simple, and somehow told so many times before. German filmmaker Maren Ade ventures into the cliché land of father-daughter relationships and emerges victorious with a tale unlike any other. Layered with emotional unavailability, loneliness and fear for the future, Ade’s third feature film, Toni Erdmann, brings to the screen a strong, real and unexpectedly hilarious story about family.
Winifred (Peter Simonischeck) is a goofy, face-paint-wearing, fake-tooth-clad, socially uncomfortable man living somewhere in Germany. The music teacher seems to be aimlessly wandering through life at the film’s open. Always sure to never take himself too seriously. His daughter, Ines (Sandra Hüller), is a fearsome yet stressed out consultant working in Romania. Her character’s sense of self is as uptight as her French twist hairstyle, and she has little to no tolerance for her father’s eccentric sense of humor.
When Winifred’s sole companion, a scraggly, old dog, dies he spontaneously travels to Bucharest for a weekend with his daughter. What stems from his decision is 48 hours of cringe-worthy, awkward interactions between the duo. Ines is confined to a schedule of business meetings that she apathetically drags Winifred along to. The obvious frustration and lack of patience for her father’s surprise drop in contrasts with his inability to understand her lifestyle. The weekend reaches an apex confrontation when the outwardly docile Winifred yells at his daughter, “Are you even human?”
Ade could build a complete film solely around the horrendous weekend, however Toni Erdmann is really just beginning.
The namesake of the film comes into play when Winifred adopts a disguise as a life coach. Well, if you can really call it a disguise as he hilariously flops a brown, shoulder length wig atop his shaggy mess of graying hair. It is through this masquerade that he finds a way to stick around Ines. He somehow appears everywhere she is to entertain and help his daughter unwind. Met with initial frustration and annoyance, Ines reluctantly allows Winifred to coexist in her world.
Her walls eventually begin to break down, but in a subtle way. They remain in an unknowing, grey area for quite sometime. It’s like Ines can’t decide whether to give into her father’s sensibilities. She switches between shamelessly belting out Whitney Houston’s “The Greatest Love of All” in front of a Greek Orthodox Easter celebration to peer pressuring Winifred into snorting cocaine and finally screaming at her father, asking him what he really lives for.
At the risk of sounding contrived, Toni Erdmann isn’t funny; it’s hilarious. Ranging from under-your-breath chuckles to stomach clenching uproar. The jokes are out of the woods, and the cast’s performance, specifically their timing, brings the script to life. Simonischeck’s delivery is offbeat yet perfectly so, always creating some tension before the humor hits. Hüller manages to control one of the most hysterical scenes in the film: a naked birthday brunch for her coworkers.
In a manic rush to get ready for her party, Ines opens the door naked for the first guest, and improvises that she’s hosting a naked brunch. Ade leaves the audience hunched over in their seat in anticipation for who might arrive next only to be greeted by Ines’s bare breasts. This scene marks Ines’s transition to a comical, self-loving being; undoubtedly due to her adventures with Winifred.
At nearly three hours, Toni Erdmann is one of the longest comedies I’ve seen. However, sitting there for two hours and 40 minutes felt notably shorter than many drama or action films. Ade possesses absolute power over every interaction. While the film is lengthy, each scene is necessary to develop the truly human, imperfect, muddled characters. Ade allows time for Winifred and Ines to resist, allow, then fully accept one another.
Leaving Toni Erdmann was an unexpectedly emotional experience after what I just described as three hours of comedic cinema. But, it’s true. I felt the absolute need to call my father. Parental relationships can be hard and often force us to feel the need to hide things from our parents: hardships, insecurities, feelings of loneliness. What Ines and Winifred initially saw in one another is a façade of togetherness. Toni Erdmann reminds its viewer that against all the qualms and harsh realities of life, you are not alone and family mends all.
While the humor is a main focus for the film, the luminosity and radiance of simple human connection in Toni Erdmann is no joking matter.
Director: Maren Ade
Writer: Maren Ade
Producer: Janine Jackowski, Maren Ade, Jonas Dornbach
Cast: Peter Simonischek, Sandra Hueller, Michael Wittenborn, Thomas Loibl, Trystan Puetter, Hadewych Minis, Lucy Russell, Ingrid Bisu, Vlad Ivanov, Victoria Cocias
Running Time: 162 min