Writer-Director Marin Ade’s Toni Erdmann, Germany’s entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2016 Oscars, is a profoundly strange and wonderful film. It wanders between awkward comedy, heartfelt drama, and outright farce with a complete control of its own voice and tone. It’s an impressive and weird movie, and even though it stretches to nearly three hours in length, it never bogs down or loses focus on the central relationship between Ines and her father Winfried.
These two characters fuel the film completely. Ines (Sandra Hüller) is a successful business consultant working on a project in Romania, very focused on her job and driven to do well. Her estranged father Winfried (Peter Simonischek) is a perfect foil: an easy-going practical jokester. The opening scene of the film depicts Winfried accepting a package, pretending it was erroneously ordered by his fresh-out-of-prison brother (in jail for sending letter bombs, of course), and then yelling into the room at his “brother”. When he comes back, he’s wearing a terrible wig and false teeth and talking about “being excited to defuse this one” . By contrast, Ines is always buried in her phone, making sure that everything is going smoothly with the latest project.
This set-up is well-travelled, especially in the world of the family drama, but Toni Erdmann refreshes it by employing a grand bit of farce and/or absurdity. First, Winfried surprises Ines in Romania, totally cramping her style and embarrassing her in front of colleagues with his extreme sarcasm and deadpan delivery. Eventually, it becomes clear that Ines doesn’t want her father there, the conflict coming to a head about a hour into the film where she brazenly insults his devil-may-care, unserious lifestyle. He leaves for the airport, and it seems that we are going to follow the rest of Ines’s story in solo-mode.
Except, her father shows up at a dinner event wearing his terrible wig and teeth, introducing himself as “Toni Erdmann, Life Coach”, and everyone falls for it hook, line, and sinker. Ines is still annoyed, but she mostly rolls with all of his absurd punches. Still, this is a wonderful turn between the first and second acts, as the tone of the film shifts from light-hearted drama into something much stranger. A similar turn occurs between the second and third acts, culminating in one of the strangest climactic scenes that I’ve ever seen.
The reason this all works is that we believe in the relationship between Ines and Winfried. We believe that it is strained and difficult, and that these are two very different people, but they still love each other. They have wildly different views on life and happiness, but really aren’t as estranged as they seem. There’s a warmth to Toni Erdmann that allows it to trade in all of its strangeness and remain an approachable, funny film. It’s an impressive balancing feat from Ade, Hüller, and Simonischek, and certainly produces a unique film that will delight and befuddle audiences for many years.
This review for Toni Erdmann is the premiere piece in a new series revolving around my wonderful Patreon supporters and fan interaction in general. Every month, patrons at the $5 level get to suggest a film for me to review, and then the suggestions are put to a vote. Thanks and congratulations to Rebekah, who suggested Toni Erdmann. For more Patreon goodness, hop on over to the page.