First and foremost, Toni Erdmann is a tale of fathers and daughters. Winfried (Peter Simonischek) is a practical joker who relishes any opportunity to clown around for his own amusement more than anything else. He’s a man who religiously keeps a pair of novelty dentures in his back pocket, and when we first meet him, he’s taunting the local postman with stories of how he’s just been released from jail for building & sending parcel bombs.
After a visit to see his workaholic daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller), who acts as a consultant to high-powered oil firms based out of Bucharest, however, Winfried discovers that his metier to amuse may hold the key to saving her from the crushing burden of the challenging corporate lifestyle she leads. And, having adopted the appearance and identity of a dishevelled businessman – complete with shoddy suit and scruffy wig – who’s in town operating as a life coach, Winfried begins popping up at his daughter’s work functions going by the name Toni Erdmann.
Dismissed regularly as a nation devoid of wit, it’s as much a surprise as it is a delight to see this German produced comedy emerging as something of a favourite to snatch the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. It’s a film that’s so much more than the sum of its parts, with director Maren Ade – making her first film in more than half a decade – confidently riding the wave between comedy and tragedy.
Running close to an almost justified 3hrs in length – the set-up is, admittedly, slightly baggy – there are, of course, plenty of highlights to indulge in; including, most notably, an impromptu karaoke set so understatedly moving, it’s tough to tell whether the tears streaming down your face by the end denote unbridled happiness or unfettered sadness. But it’s in the plethora of profound messages to be taken away in the film’s observations on the pressures women face when striving to succeed in what is still the very male-orientated world modern business that Toni Erdmann truly leaves a lasting impression: the hulking weight of personal expectation writ noticeably in Ines’s eyes.
Elements of Alexander Payne are distinguishable within the direction, Ade – working from her own screenplay – sketching her characters with a touching honesty that’s magnified in the pair of quietly magnificent central performances from Hüller & Simonischek. Much of what she has to say is serious, but she does so whilst retaining a light touch that’s both bitter and sweet. Her crowning achievement comes towards the end; an intimate birthday party between close friends that soon descends into incomprehensible farce involving full-frontal nudity and a furry bestial outfit. To describe it anymore would be detriment to the comedy, but suffice to say that if it’s true that laughter really is the best medicine, then that scene could have the power to cure a terminal illness.
Director: Maren Ade
Writer: Maren Ade (screenplay)
Stars: Peter Simonischek, Sandra Hüller, Michael Wittenborn
Runtime: 162 min
Country: Germany, Austria
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