German director Maren Ade presents a highly unusual satiric drama, examining the dubious nature of corporate success as portrayed by a driven young executive (Sandra Hȕller), whose eccentric father (Peter Simonischek) creates chaos in her life when he disguises himself as a crazed interloper named Toni Erdmann.
Toni Erdmann, Germany’s entry for Best Foreign Language film at the Oscars this year, is a remarkable, ambitious, epic comedy/drama, written and directed by Maren Ade. This is her third feature, but the first I’ve seen, and the first to get international attention. Ade proves herself a creative force to be reckoned with. The film is unusual in many ways, a one-of-a-kind experience, really.
We are given a hint of the premise in the very first scene. A messenger is delivering a package to a house. An older man opens the door, expresses surprise, and says that it must be for his brother, recently released from prison after being convicted of sending bombs in the mail. He goes away, and comes back in a bizarre disguise, a handcuff on one wrist, and a blood pressure device around his deck, which starts beeping. Eventually he admits to the startled young man that he’s joking, and that he and his brother are the same person.
This is Winfried, divorced, a music teacher at a middle school, and obviously fond of practical jokes. He is played by Peter Simonischek. Winfried has a daughter, Ines, played by Sandra Hȕller, who visits her home town very briefly at the beginning of the film, during which time it becomes clear that her high-powered job for a consulting firm in Bucharest takes up most of her time and attention.
One would surmise that if she takes after anyone, it would have to be her mother, because Ines is as focused and driven as her father is careless and messy. Later in Romania, he shows up unannounced with a birthday gift, wanting to see how she’s doing. He doesn’t fit in with the corporate big shots surrounding Ines, and manages to embarrass her and cause her to miss an important appointment. So he goes away, but then it turns out that he hasn’t gone away. He returns as Toni Erdmann, a fictional businessman wearing a dark shaggy wig and grotesque false teeth. Toni Erdmann becomes an unpredictable element of chaos in Ines’s personal and professional life.
I think calling Toni Erdmann a comedy may set up false expectations. Film comedy as we know it tries to make us laugh as often as possible, and along the way maybe touch on some truths about the human condition. Ade, however, has made a drama about modern life, the father-daughter relationship, and corporate culture, and all this can be hilarious at times, just like real life. She also spends a lot of time letting us get to know Ines and her experience. A conventional comedy would set up the corporate types and then swiftly knock them down with ridicule. But here, for instance, we are given an entire presentation by Ines in a board room, and the film gathers insight and dramatic heft rather than just laughs. It’s of no small significance that her consulting firm specializes in advising companies on outsourcing their labor, in the meantime willingly taking the heat for these unpopular policies which the company CEOs would rather duck. Ade doesn’t blunt the edge of the social critique here. The meanness of the culture results in painful consequences for ordinary people.
The humorous scenes are indeed very funny, but they too have a point. I won’t spoil things by explaining what the point is, except to say that it develops naturally in the relationship between Winfried and Ines. Both actors are amazing, just whip smart in every scene, with Sandra Hȕller ultimately taking the prize for her portrayal of this intense, uptight professional woman, proud and unhappy, and in the end revelatory. The film doesn’t cut corners, it takes you on a complete emotional journey, and in the end I was moved. Toni Erdmann is a rich and complex work of art.