“Toni Erdmann,” a new German language film from director Maren Ade and nominated for Best Foreign Film at this year’s Oscars, is being billed as a comedy but that’s not exactly accurate. It is absurd and often quite funny, but those laughs come from a deep mine of pain and desperation.
Peter Simonischek is Winfried, an elderly music teacher and next level practical joker. When he isn’t teaching he’s wearing funny teeth and punking the mail delivery people, pretending to be a dangerous criminal just out of jail for sending bombs through the post. His daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller), a corporate bigwig working for an oil company in Bucharest, did not inherit the clown gene.
The two are polar opposites, so when he shows up unannounced to spend time with her, she’s not entirely pleased. After a falling out he leaves, presumably to catch a plane back to Germany, only to reappear in her life as “life coach” Toni Erdmann. Dressed in an ill-fitting suit, plastic teeth and a fright wig he tries to endear himself to her friends and co-workers in a strange attempt to forge a relationship with a daughter he bares knows.
Despite Winfried’s off-the-wall antics “Toni Erdmann’s” main feel isn’t one of humour but of desperation. The father is desperate to understand his daughter’s life and career choices. Ines’s desperation manifests itself in quick blasts of temper and a kill-or-be-killed attitude on the job. Both behave strangely, expressing their dysfunction in very different ways, but they share a feeling that something is missing from their lives.
It’s heady stuff for a film that features funny teeth and clownish wigs but it works because of Ade’s unblinking camera and naturalistic and emotional performances from the leads.
Ade allows the camera to linger on uncomfortable, bittersweet moments that at first feel unnecessary but soon become intimate glimpses that reveal the inner thoughts of father and daughter. More than just padding and making an already long movie even longer, they are windows into the personalities of the characters. Like watching someone when they don’t know they’re being observed, they provide a raw look at Ines and Winfried.
The movie’s greatest moment, a public display of catharsis from Ines comes with the singing of a song. At a party father prods his daughter to sings while he plays a small electric piano. She lets loose, finally dropping her carefully constructed public persona and belts out a version of Whitney Houston’s “The Greatest Love of All” that would bring the house down at any respectable karaoke joint. It’s a show-stopper, an exuberant letting loose that showcases much more than Ines’s way with a song. It is a great purge, a letting go of her inhibitions after getting her buttons pushed and it is glorious.
Simonischek and Hüller are wonderfully cast. Simonischek‘s sad sack father has found an outlet through humour and, sometimes infuriatingly, passes along his wisdom to his daughter. He’s all heart and often stands in stark contrast to his all-business daughter.
Hüller has the wider character arc and makes us care about someone who is being consumed by her own sense of emptiness. Did I mention this is being marketed as a comedy? That archetype of a successful person who swaps any sort of meaningful human connection for success is ripe for parody and Hüller mines it for funny moments as Ines slowly wakes up and comes to life.
“Toni Erdmann” has no real payoff other than spending time with two fascinating characters. For me that was enough.