'Toni Erdmann': Cannes Review

The best 162-minute German comedy you'll ever see.

Maren Ade’s third feature film as a director unravels the knots that tie together Peter Simonischek's prankster father and Sandra Huller as his careerwoman daughter.

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.

Neither, however, was as tonally complex or ambitious as this, or had as much crossover potential. Job opportunities from abroad, and probably lucrative offers to sell the remake rights for this, will surely come Ade’s way soon. But fans, both longstanding and new converts, can only hope the temptations won’t turn her head too much away from developing her distinctive authorial voice. At its best, her blend of subtle social observation, bawdiness and absurdity evokes an unfeasible cross between the comic sensibilities of novelist Jennifer Egan, Austrian filmmaker Ulrich Seidl and actor-showrunner Lena Dunham.

What that triangulation of references can’t get across is how deeply grounded Ade’s films are in modern bourgeois German identity which, however far her characters stray from their homeland, remains a curious mix of fearless, exhibitionist openness and buttoned-up business-like reticence. The father and daughter protagonists at the heart of Toni Erdmann represent these two polar opposites in extremis, bound together by the magnetic pull of family.

Shaggy and shambling baby-boomer Winfried (Peter Simonischek) is a music teacher in suburban Germany whose last piano student has chosen to stop taking lessons. Likewise, his beloved dog Willi also has had enough and up and dies on him, the first whiff of a sense of mortality that pervades the movie. An inveterate prankster, Winfried delights in donning unconvincing disguises in order to playact being different characters. Buck-toothed “Toni Erdmann” is his favorite alternate personality.

With no job or pressing commitments, Winfried decides to show up unannounced in Bucharest, Romania, where his daughter Ines (Huller, from Hans-Christian Schmid’s Requiem and Jessica Hausner’s Amour Fou) has been stationed for over a year working for a management consultancy firm. Ines is completely absorbed in corporate power plays and gamesmanship, which will eventually result in actual people losing their jobs (long shots throughout of poorly dressed extras and dilapidated Romanian locations underscore the poverty at the edges of the EU zone). She’s less than thrilled by her father’s arrival at her office in a set of false teeth and a bad wig. Playing along and pretending not to know him is both a way to humor him and spare her embarrassment. But she can’t wait put him in a taxi to the airport after a series of near-disastrous encounters between him and her work colleagues and clients. The 10 seconds or so the two of them have to endure while waiting for an elevator after they’ve already said their insincere goodbyes might just be one of the most excruciating spells of awkward silence in the history of cinema.

Suffice to say, that’s not the last the film will see of Winfried and Toni, but to reveal much more would spoil the many delightful and strange twists and appearances, some of which are sadly given away by the film’s own promotional artwork.

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