[This is a re-post of our Toni Erdmann review from the 2016 Telluride Film Festival. The film is now playing in limited release.]
Maren Ade‘s Toni Erdmann is a film that’s full of surprises and immense depth. Sure, it has screwball elements and a character who seems to be inspired by Andy Kaufman‘s confrontational alter egos, but there’s more than pranks to Erdmann—there’s some major theatricalism at play. First there is only one participant in the disruptive games, but then there are two, and together they become a yin-and-yang duo of comedy and tragedy. And with Ade’s careful construction, Toni Erdmann‘s offsetting comedy and tragedy seeks to find some sort of balance in our modern times. “Toni Erdmann” is a life coach, after all, and the lesson is that our world is becoming more and more tragic and we can never lose our sense of humor or openness to something unexpected through rigid and empty pursuits.
Toni is the alter ego of Winifred Conradi (Peter Simonischek). He has fake teeth, a wild wig, and says whatever might throw the conversation askew. For instance, he tells a man delivering a package to him that he loves ordering live bombs and defusing them before they go off, while wearing a beeping heart monitor. But the line between Toni and Winifred seems to have blurred into every part of his life. One day at work, he puts on Day of the Dead makeup and leads school kids into a song about death for the retirement party of a school teacher. But we also see him in tender moments, carrying his old dog who can barely move, to all of his favorite spots in the yard.
Winifred’s daughter, Ines Conradi (Sandra Hüller), is a consultant at a firm in Bucharest that specializes in downsizing staff and issuing layoffs—while moving major corporations to more tax-friendly locations, like Romania. She is icy cold and extremely ambitious. She also wants her family and friends to believe that her level of success is higher than it is. On her birthday, her father catches her on a fake business call to set up a fake meeting. She despises her father’s alter ego but is unaware that she’s also created one for herself. And she cannot answer a simple question like does she have “fun” in Bucharest because that business ego—and entitlement—has overtaken her life.
When Winifred’s ancient dog companion passes away, he goes to visit Ines in Bucharest. He embarrasses her at work, but an important oil CEO finds his conversational tactics so against the grain from all the ass-kissing, he invites them out for drinks. Winifred’s attempts at levity prove to be slightly useful with a client that Ines has been struggling to lock down with her all-business demeanor. When Winifred gets into a taxi to go to the airport, Toni Erdmann, life coach/political cartoon come to life, then appears throughout her daily schedule, rubbing elbows with elite investors in his grotesque get-up, mildly making a mockery of their elitism.
Ines begins to reconnect with her father through his alter ego, but only after she begins to create situations that counter how she would have operated before. For instance, when a slimy co-worker (Trystan Pütter) whom she’s sleeping with tells her that their boss knows of their liaisons and encourages them to continue so that she’ll keep her strict no-nonsense approach with potential clients, she takes control and asks him to do a sex act that will ridicule him, and thus bring him to a level where he’ll think less of himself. She’s learning to embrace the bizarre, but it’s at the expense of others.
Occasionally Winifred will emerge from Toni Erdmann’s appearance. Generally it’s in moments where he sees people with less being taken advantage of—yet those people still offer him kindness. He can’t continue playing the caricature of a grotesque (and somehow successful) businessman. When he tells Ines to “never lose the humor” it’s after a man in a shack next to a construction site offers Toni his toilet after he sees him getting ready to shit in the woods. The work site is a place where layoffs are soon coming, for Ines’ job success is determinate on removing other people’s jobs, and the man was able to see the humor in the situation and still offer a human response of not allowing someone else to be subjected to embarrassment.
There is a lot of humor in Toni Erdmann. Simonischek uses his fake teeth, wig, stature and costumes to great effect; the mere sight of him next to people in expensive clothes having empty conversations sets up each Toni Erdmann appearance with a smile. Despite his appearance and his confrontational approach, Ade and Simonischek are able to elicit genuine laughs and not laughter from being uncomfortable. Additionally, there’s unexpected tension in Erdmann because you think he’s going to pop up with every knock at every door.
There’s one scene in particular that involves multiple knocks at the door and by prolonging his entrance, Ade is able to create one of the greatest physical comedy moments in recent memory. It involves a team-building birthday party that devolves from the first knock. What follows is one of the most hilarious nude scenes ever filmed, but it also serves as the beginning of a release for Ines, to embrace the humor of situations and involve herself in potentially humiliating moments and not let anyone else feel humiliated (counter to her impersonal business practices).
Hüller is a revelation in Erdmann and her ability to go the lengths that Ade pushes her and not turn into something grotesque makes this one of the best performances of the year in one of the best films of the year. And for Ade, it confirms her as a major writing-directing force in international film. Bravo!
Toni Erdmann opens in limited release on December 25.