Be honest, when was the last time you remember a German comedy film making international headlines and scooping world awards? The bittersweet good bye lenin!, perhaps, that collected nominations for the baftas and golden globes in 2004? o schtonk!, the 1992 Oscar-nominated farce from Hitler’s diaries that became a huge national hit and drew international criticism that German comedy is no laughing matter.
Now, writer-director Maren Ade’s brooding Toni Erdmann, a 162-minute black comedy about the estrangement between father and daughter, looks poised to win the Academy Award for best foreign language film. having cleaned up at the european film awards and topped vista & In the prestigious 2016 Best of Sound poll of over 150 critics and curators, Toni Erdmann elicits smiles and grimaces wherever it’s played, balancing laugh-out-loud absurdity with excruciatingly understated tragedy. “This is not going to be a comedy,” Ade told her co-producer. “This is going to be a very long and sad movie.” in fact, it is both and more.
Sandra Hüller, who wowed as a young woman tormented by inner demons in Hans-Christian Schmid’s Requiem, is simply stunning as Ines Conradi, a fragile professional working her way up the consulting ladder. Estranged from Ella Winfried’s ever-joking father (a splendidly disheveled Peter Simonishchek), Ella Inés Ella puts on a prickly facade, though she is secretly sickened by the reality of her job; her taking the blame for her clients’ cost-cutting cowardice.
While on business in Bucharest, Inés’ dealings with an oil company are cut short by the unexpected appearance of her father, ostensibly to deliver a birthday present and spend time with his daughter. She humors him briefly and mourns the death of her beloved dog, but when it’s time to go, Winfried refuses to play ball. instead, to her horror, he dons a furry wig and buck teeth (think ken dodd meets gerard depardieu) and begins introducing himself to his colleagues as “toni erdmann,” a gregarious, enterprising “life coach” whose ines company can not help. As Winfried’s postwar hippie ideals collide with Ines’s 21st-century cynicism, dysfunctional family wounds reopen, with increasingly disturbing consequences.
on one level, toni erdmann can be read as a biting satire on europe and a warning about the depersonalizing results of globalization. however, while such socioeconomic subtexts are barely concealed, it is in the intimate interaction between irritating father and insular daughter that the real fireworks happen. ade’s genius is in refusing to allow either character to become a caricature, instead painting them both in cute shades of grey.
yes, winfried/toni is an infuriating presence whose attempts to reconnect with her daughter border on bullying (she hides in her closet after sneaking into her apartment). And yes, Inés’ sucking profession is one in which corporate venality and moral abnegation are the order of the day. yet both harbor a wrenching awareness of their own shortcomings, of their inability to improve their lives and their relationships. That we feel and share these anxieties is a testament to the deceptive precision of ade, who seemingly shot hundreds of hours of footage in search of perfect movie moments.
When the laughs come, they’re as exciting as an old episode of The Office or a performance of Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party. an increasingly forceful rendition of the greatest love of all had me pulling my sweater collar up over my face to hide my radioactive embarrassment. Elsewhere, there’s some of lars von trier’s unbearable boss-of-everything ruthlessness, most notably in a magnificently awkward sex scene that will put you off for life, particularly greens.
but such pain has a purpose. Amidst the symphony of stubbed toes and sore heels, dentures and fake smiles, Toni Erdmann gradually turns embarrassment into empathy, discomfort into acceptance. Unlike Giuseppe Tortorore’s thematically comparable Stanno Tutti Bene, or even Yasujiro Ozu’s Story of Tokyo, this pathetically charged tale of a parental pilgrimage doesn’t want us to conclude that life really is disappointing. instead, he wants us to wake up to the possibility of something better, even if that possibility comes by wearing a furry Bulgarian folk costume and looking like a fugitive from a surreal Andrew Kötting movie.
In a recent interview in The Observer, Ade cited the grueling French comedy Mon Père, Ce Héros (remade as My Father the Hero) and Andy Kaufman’s alter egos as inspirations for Toni Erdmann. the links to both are obvious, but thankfully neither came to mind as I watched. Instead, I was left in awe of how the writer/director of The Forest for the Trees and all the rest (and, indeed, the co-producer of Miguel Gomes’s Amazing Arabian Nights) had forged something utterly unique and wholly indefinable. I laughed, I cried, I screamed. wow!