German filmmaker Maren Ade’s coming-of-age comedy Toni Erdmann is a hilarious and immensely moving portrayal of an idiosyncratic father and daughter relationship.
Toni Erdmann opens with a parcel being delivered to a suburban house. The delivery driver stands waiting for his signature; enter Winfried, a semi-retired slightly goofy piano teacher with a towering stature. He tells the driver that the parcel is for his brother and as he goes off to fetch him, Winfried appears again at the door, this time with a change of clothes and a pair of sunglasses. Claiming to be his own fictional brother, Winfried jokes with the driver, insisting that the parcel contains parts for a bomb he is making. It’s a comical opening that perfectly introduces our eponymous protagonist, and an opening that provides as many laughs as some comedy films manage in their entirety. Winfried is a man who seemingly spends all of his time playing practical jokes on everybody around him and upon deciding to visit his work obsessed 30-something year-old daughter Ines in Bucharest, his farcical demeanour clashes with her wholly serious business world.
Winfried decides to create a new persona in an effort to reconnect with his estranged daughter. Enter Toni Erdmann, a wacky, confident and charismatic ‘life coach’ equipped with a ridiculous wig and some even more ridiculous fake teeth. Toni enters Ines’ life at only the most inconvenient times, mainly during immensely important business meetings, doing his best to embarrass his daughter at every turn.
There is an autobiographical touch that lingers over the film, director Maren Ade has said that the character of Winfried is loosely based on her own father who also enjoyed playing practical jokes with false teeth. This donates a sense of authenticity to the story and the onscreen relationship feels completely heartfelt, and completely real. The film’s lengthy 162-minute running time adds to this authenticity as it allows plenty of time for its characters to establish themselves. Ade’s work never overstays its welcome; scenes are not rushed, and emotions are not blitzed over, the patient tempo offers a platform for its multi-dimensional characters to develop and grow right before your eyes. Being filmed and written largely in German, Ade’s piece is luckily not pinned down to Hollywood’s restricting conventions when it comes to usual running times for what is effectively a comedy.
Whilst Ade’s direction and screenplay possess much to be admired, it is also the two leading performances that deserve great attention. Sandra Huller plays Ines with superb conviction; Huller manages to find the perfect balance between the taut professionalism of Ines, and her rarely seen relaxed side that she gains from her father, a side that comes to a hilarious head with Ines’ questionable rendition of a Whitney Huston ballad in front of bemused spectators. However, it is Peter Simonischek’s performance that is the film’s crowning jewel, he is simply unforgettable as the loveable Winfried/Toni. He steals every scene he’s in, perfectly encapsulating every daughter’s nightmare of an embarrassing dad trying to be cool, reaching almost David Brent levels of cringe and awkwardness.
The beating heart of Toni Erdmann is the endearing father and daughter relationship that the story revolves around. It’s a heart warming, and at times heart breaking onscreen bond that etches itself into the memory of any viewer and Ade’s film is a refreshing and uplifting take on a cinematic narrative trope that is perhaps at times overplayed by Hollywood.
Toni Erdmann premiered last year at Cannes, narrowly (but rightly) losing out to Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake for the prestigious Palme d’Or and is now Germany’s official selection for the Foreign Language Oscar.
The film is scheduled for release in the UK on the 3rd February…
★★★★1/2 | Josh Hall
Comedy, Drama, World Cinema | Germany, 2016 | 15 | 3rd February 2017 (UK) | Soda Pictures | Dir.Maren Ade | Sandra Hüller, Peter Simonischek, Michael Wittenborn, Thomas Loibl