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According to the most basic laws of cinema, Toni Erdmann, Maren Ade’s third feature as a writer-director (she has five times that many credits as a producer), shouldn’t work. It’s practically one long string of nesting, oxymoronic self-cancelling paradoxes: Here is the world’s first genuinely funny, 162-minute German comedy of embarrassment. Even the fact that it’s about likeable management consultants, deploys whoopee cushions and semen-covered petit fours as props, and features a scene where a character sings an easy-listening classic (surprisingly well) doesn’t stop it from being a slow-burning thing of beauty, ultimately as moving as it is implausibly funny.
Even accounting for the somewhat self-indulgent running time, Toni Erdmann represents a very exportable property (that is, for a German film) which could find lucrative niches abroad. Undoubtedly, it also will represent a career boon for Ade, whose 2003 directorial debut The Forest for the Trees (Der Wald vor lauter Baumen) and its 2009 follow-up Everyone Else (Alle Anderen) were similarly smart, dry and off-kilter comedy-dramas of manners and mores. Both previous works have a lot of thematic overlap with this and also were much admired by festivals and critics.
What can be said is that Ade plays an especially adept game herself as she manipulates, aided and abetted by intricately layered performances from Simonischek and Huller, audience sympathy for these at-first irritating, perhaps even hugely unlikable characters who grow soft sides and sweet spots over the course of the film. Beneath Winfried’s goofy idiocy lies a kindly heart and genuine curiosity about the world around him. Like his newly deceased pet, he’s a bit dim but loyal, dogged and loving, and the film builds a leitmotiv around all things bestial and furry that spans Toni’s tousled wig, a colleague calling Ines an “animal” as a compliment to her ruthlessness, to a particularly hirsute outfit that features in the last act.
Meanwhile, Ines’ humanity grows as the film progresses and Huller and Ade literally strip away the character’s career-girl, worsted-wool defenses. With a silky, light touch, the screenplay touches on sexism in the workplace, for instance when a client pressures Ines into entertaining his trophy wife with a shopping trip, and she accepts the humiliating assignment. At one point, she tells her boss, in all seriousness, “I’m not a feminist, or I wouldn’t tolerate guys like you.” As far as Ines is concerned, in order to get ahead in a male-dominated world, you have to eat crap, or in this case, the petit four her lover-colleague-rival Tim (Trystan Puetter) just masturbated over.
The way Ines spontaneously and intuitively finds a way of turning the tables on her mostly hideous colleagues (it’s impossible not to warm to perpetual striver Anca, played by Ingrid Bisu) and insincere ex-pat friends (welcome back Lucy Russell, you’ve been missed) is one of the film’s greatest comic triumphs. It’s also soon followed by its most poignant moment of rapprochement between Ines and Winfried, a tear-jerker made all the more potent because of the surrealism of the costuming.
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Competition)
Production companies: A Komplizen Film production in co-production with coop99, knm, Missing Link Films, SWR/WDR/ARTE
Cast: Peter Simonischek, Sandra Hueller, Michael Wittenborn, Thomas Loibl, Trystan Puetter, Hadewych Minis, Lucy Russell, Ingrid Bisu, Vlad Ivanov, Victoria Cocias
Director-screenwriter: Maren Ade
Producers: Janine Jackowski, Jonas Dornbach, Maren Ade, Michel Merkt
Co-producers: Bruno Wagner, Antonin Svoboda, David Keitsh, Sebastian Schipper
Director of photography: Patrick Orth
Art director: Silke Fischer
Costume designer: Gitti Fuchs
Editor: Heike Parplies
Casting: Nina Haun
Sales: Match Factory
Not rated, 162 minutes
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