Director: Maren Ade
Starring: Sandra Hüller, Peter Simonischek and Michael Wittenborn
Release Date: Feb 3
Toni Erdmann is the alter ego of Winfried Conradi (Simonischek), a father who feels the need to construct this comical alias in order to reconnect with his estranged daughter, Ines (Hüller).
The film opens as the rather peculiar looking title character signs for a parcel, proclaiming to the deliveryman that it contains material for a bomb. This off-beat, left-field exchange sets the tone for the rest of the film, as the audience is kept guessing as to where the character of Winfried ends, and where Erdmann begins.
Winfried decides to visit his daughter unannounced in Bucharest, where she’s working as a corporate strategist. After a series of fractious and fraught exchanges, Winfried agrees to return to Germany, or so we think. What follows is a role reversal of the parent-daughter relationship, as childish practical joker Winfried transforms at will, into the alternate personality from the beginning of the film, Toni Erdmann.
In a stand out scene, Toni appears from the shadows of the bar his daughter is socialising at with friends, and introduces himself as her boss’s life coach. His trademark costume of an oversized suit, false teeth and wig, is bizarre enough to provoke laughs, yet its subtlety prohibits the role from turning into unbelievable farce.
Ines comes to realise that the people she is surrounded with are as vacuous and superficial as the employment she engages in. The only inconsistent constants in all of this is her father and Toni.
She invites him to socialise more within her professional circles and her father’s egalitarian touch often involves them in some comical scenarios involving colourful characters. A father-daughter duet of Whitney Houston’s “Greatest Love of All”, at a random house party of strangers, is both touching and hilarious.
The film was nominated in the best foreign language film of the Academy Awards, after a successful reception at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival. For those as ‘uncultured’ as myself, they may find the European sensibility of film-making quite tedious and frustrating at times. Ponderous plot pacing and repeated, prolonged shots are present throughout the film and contribute to its running time of 2 hours and 42 minutes.
I’m generally nervous of films approaching the three hour mark, and one feels much of Toni Erdmann could have been left on the cutting room floor. Exposing my philistinism, generally I feel that to warrant a film of that duration, audiences should be presented with a multi-threaded and tightly structured narrative.
Often films over the two hour mark can run the risk of seeming self-indulgent on the directors part, but it would be harsh to say this of Toni Erdmann. This extra screen time is more than compensated for by two wonderful performances from its protagonists.
The strains and joys of a father-daughter relationship are tenderly laid bare, with a nuance and sensitivity rarely seen in Hollywood fare. Simonsichek masterfully balances the roles of fool and father and also, to the directors credit, his routine never descends into that of the irritating jester.
Director Maren Ade’s is quoted as saying that she based this character on her own father, and that his performance art brand of humour is based on comedian Andy Kaufman. The comic relief is never just for the sake of a cheap gag, as each of these interactions reveals much deeper levels of their relationship.
Perhaps overly long, but a film that demonstrates movies can still be funny without the crass, gross-out humour of so much of contemporary mainstream cinema.
Written by Cian O’ Donnell