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toni erdmann review
A father adopts an extravagant comic persona in an attempt to reconnect with his daughter.

Review by John Bennett

Directed by: Maren Ade

Starring: Peter Simonischek, Sandra Huller, Michael Wittenborn

toni erdmann poster

It’s been a while since Maren Ade sat in the director’s chair; her last film, Everyone Else, hit screens in 2009. Since then she’s worked as a producer, helping directors like the very talented Miguel Gomes, among others, get their films made. Everyone Else was a very effective, ambiguous (and often cringe-worthy) anatomy of a romantic relationship. Ade is back from her directorial absence with her new film, Toni Erdmann, a film that uses the same clinical eye from Everyone Else, this time to dissect a father-daughter relationship. Toni Erdmann, which played in competition for the Palme d’or at Cannes and won the FIPRESCI prize, feels like the kind of full, satisfying work of art that Ade has been building up to. It’s a funny, perceptive, sprawling, nervous work that will leave you laughing, cringing and thinking seriously about your own dysfunctional family dynamic in equal measure.

toni erdmann review

At the start of Ade’s boldly off-kilter family comedy, Winfried (Peter Simonischek), a lonely man in late middle age, spontaneously decides to follow his adult daughter, Ines (Sandra Hüller), to her business trip in Romania after the death of his dog. Ines, an anxious workaholic, is perpetually embarrassed by the way her prankster father oafishly but endearingly inserts himself into her professional and social lives. During a night out with some colleagues, Ines lays into her father, thinking he has returned to Germany. Little does she know that lurking behind her at the bar with a wig and his favorite pair of false teeth is Winfried, who, in his most ambitious prank, introduces himself to Ines and her friends as the titular Toni Erdmann, a bizarre yet humorously hunched and grinning monster of a character. Too mortified to expose her father’s ruse, Ines goes along with the setup. For a large remainder of the business trip, Winfried and Ines find that they end up using Toni as a strange surrogate for trying to understand and communicate with one another in a more honest way, eroding their de facto estrangement.

The remarkable thing about Toni Erdmann is the way Ade handles tense family interactions. The dynamic that Ade has created for Winfried and Ines is, well, dynamic; the film demonstrates that our relationships with those we hold dear are never one thing: the tenors of these interactions constantly change from ones of admiration to surprise to annoyance to contempt to simple neutral coexistence back to admiration infinitum ad absurdum. Ines is amused when her father gets her a cheese grater for her birthday; she’s annoyed when he’s invited to a business after-party; she regards him more or less evenly during lunch at a hotel spa.

toni erdmann review

In many movies, plays and novels, even great ones, familial relationships often hinge on one defining characterisation. George and Martha are at bitter yet vulnerable war with one another in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. Grown children are too busy for their aging parents in Tokyo Story. Quentin neurotically obsesses over Cady’s virginity in The Sound and the Fury. These are all undeniably great works, but it’s important to understand that the relationships therein are predicated by a single event or coloured with a single tone or defined by a single theme. To Toni Erdmann’s immense credit, the relationship between Ines and Winfried is open and constantly evolving. And as if to let us see this evolution as clearly as possible, Ade lends a fluorescently lit frankness to the visuals - it’s almost as if the audience were doctors-in-training, allowing Ade, the head doctor, to show us how people behave, interact, and change.

At one point late in the film, Ines, during an awkward intensification of her father’s prankster sensibility (and possibly during a small mental breakdown), decides on a whim to answer the door for a business party in the nude, informing her stunned guests that the party will be thrown au natural. Surprise, surprise Toni/Winfried, unaware of his daughter’s idea, shows up in a giant furry costume like nothing you’ve seen before. In a visual expression of how the two are on different, confused emotional pages, Ines’s complete pale exposure visually counters Toni/Winfried’s dark shaggy concealment. It’s after this bizarre failed party that Ines and Winfried discover themselves in sync, and it becomes a moment of pure love and understanding. Yet Ade smartly doesn’t make this a played-out reconciliatory end - like I said, she’s interested in showing how a father and a daughter constantly revise their appraisals of one another. Rather, this moment of understanding ebbs back into Ines and Winfried’s unsynchronised song and dance of love, annoyance, and uncertainty. Though stylised (in narrative more than visuals), the truth that Ade drives at in this regard makes Toni Erdmann feel very real and alive.

toni erdmann review

Simonischek and Hüller wonderfully convey and sustain these complicated ideas throughout the duration of the film, but they also keep Toni Erdmann happily grounded and entertaining - Simonischek with his constant low-key good-natured joker spirit, and Hüller with her droll mortification and exasperation, alleviated every now and then by the same prankster proclivities as her character’s father. In one scene, Toni/Winfried “arrests” Ines for having done cocaine by placing her in handcuffs. Not amused and late for a meeting, Ines demands the key…ach du lieber! He can’t find it, forcing the two to take an unscheduled trip to a blacksmith. The sequence is cringingly hilarious and light-on-its-feet while still advancing the film’s slightly more sober ideas. In this scene, and many like it, the two actors are so in tune with each other that they appear to be as responsible for crafting the film’s story and tone as Ade; Toni Erdmann projects an improvisational goofiness that keeps the film downright entertaining for the majority of its running time.

That is to say, entertaining for the majority, if not the whole thing: at 162 minutes, Toni Erdmann starts to feel a little self-indulgent by the last reel. It’s a problem, but not a major one. Even if Toni Erdmann becomes a bit excessive, it doesn’t do so until around its final half hour; the film is mostly deeply engrossing, and whatever flaws it has are more than compensated for by the brilliant work that Ade, Simonischek, and Hüller sustain for the vast majority of this funny, deeply intelligent film.

Toni Erdmann is on MUBI UK now.