Without a warning a father comes to visit his daughter abroad. He believes that she lost her humour and therefore surprises her with a rampage of jokes.
Every year there’s outrage about who’s been left off the Academy Awards’ nominations for Best Foreign Film, but nobody’s disputing the highly original and often hilarious German drama Toni Erdmann fully deserves its place on the list of nine films competing for the 2017 Oscar. Directed by Maren Ade (Everyone Else, The Forest for the Trees), Toni Erdmann is a quirky and fearless father-daughter story that will resonate with anyone who’s ever been embarrassed by a parent, and it’s already garnered numerous bouquets, including a clean sweep of the European Film Awards, since its FIPRESCI-winning debut at Cannes last year.
Winfried (veteran Austrian actor Peter Simonischek) is a retired music teacher living in the comfortable suburbs of Berlin with his decrepit dog. A practical joker and wannabe clown, he keeps himself entertained by donning disguises and trying to fool the mailman. When his adult daughter, Ines (Sandra Hüller), returns from overseas on a short visit, Winfried is horrified to see she’s become a stressed and humourless corporate high flyer. She’s glued to her mobile phone (even when there’s nobody on the other end of the line) and there’s a permanent down-turn to her sulky mouth. The concerned father decides to surprise her by turning up in Bucharest, Romania, where Ines works for a huge multinational company as a consultant hired to justify the retrenchment of local employees.
"This scenario could have been an easy setup for excruciating and obvious farce, but the skill of the script and the superb performances of the lead actors mean sympathy is never simply on one side."
Ines is already fighting hard to maintain power in a highly sexist workplace – her boss asks her to help his wife shop for souvenirs – and the last things she needs is her bumbling dad making bad jokes and slipping prosthetic buck-teeth in and out of his mouth, while complaining to her superiors that she works too hard. This scenario could have been an easy setup for excruciating and obvious farce, but the skill of the script and the superb performances of the lead actors mean sympathy is never simply on one side. We see the desperation of an eccentric, liberal-minded father trying to break through to his conservative daughter – who’s clearly involved in the exploitation of a developing country; but we also observe in minute detail the daughter’s courage and intelligence, and the multiple indignities she suffers to survive in the corporate jungle.
One of the pleasures here is seeing Ines apply all her determination and street-smart instincts to counter her father’s increasingly bizarre role play: he adopts the persona of ‘Toni Erdmann’ – an unconventional corporate coach in bad suit, fright wig and those awful teeth. He turns up at her office, at the bars where she drinks with her female friends, and at the networking parties she frequents. Her responses are never predictable, especially when she eventually plays along and lets her father see what her life is really like – remote mining site visits, cocaine-snorting and all. (The film is a terrific observational study of the brutalities of the corporate workplace and the inequalities of global capitalism.) The battle of wits between Winfried and Ines is especially bittersweet because there’s so much love and deep understanding mixed in with the anger and resentment.
There’s an almost documentary feel to Toni Erdmann. Long, fluid takes, naturalistic cinematography (by Patrick Orth) and bland, realistic set design (by Silke Fischer) allow all the focus to follow the interactions between the actors – both verbal and often even more powerfully, non-verbal. Hüller is a gifted actress capable of depicting a world of emotion with a twitch of a tense jaw or narrowed eye. She made her feature film debut as epileptic Michaela Klinger in Hans-Christian Schmid’s Requiem (2004) and here she’s allowed to show both incredible restraint and bravura clowning abilities equal to the considerable skills of Simonischek, who achieves that difficult task of being a great actor playing an amateur performer.
This is a film bursting with strange, wonderful, comic set pieces that work all the better for their straight-faced naturalism: a nudist birthday party-cum-corporate bonding exercise; a tragic sex scene involving power-play and pastries; and a Karaoke rendition of Whitney Houston’s ‘The Greatest Love of All’ that hits so many notes of pathos, desperation and elation that you won’t know whether to laugh or cry. In all its 162 minutes, Toni Erdmann never once strays into expected territory, let alone cliché. It’s brave and dangerous filmmaking that’s worth every moment of discomfort.
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