Director: Maren Ade
Cast: Sandra Hüller, Peter Simonischek
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Toni Erdmann arrives on VOD with a sparkling reputation. Maren Ade’s film was one of the most popular of Cannes 2016, where it competed for the Palme D’or, it appeared at the top of numerous ‘Best Of’ lists in 2016, and found itself a nominee for Best Foreign Film at the 2017 Academy Awards (where it lost out to Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman). In some ways, the success is surprising – it’s rare that a subtle comedy drama holds so much international attention and acclaim (especially an almost three-hour German one). Yet, upon closer examination, Toni Erdmann is a timely, clever – and at times barbed – skewering of modern middle-class existence that balances a fine line between cold detachment and warm humanity that will speak to many.
Ines Conradi (Sandra Hüller) is a high-flying business consultant currently working in Bucharest, where she is helping an oil company to ‘outsource’ workers. On her doorstep arrives her father, Winfried (Peter Simonischek), a practical joker with a shambling gait, who has decided to visit spontaneously after his beloved dog dies. It becomes clear that their two lives are very different – Winfried accompanies his daughter to receptions and meetings and sees nothing but stress and constant work. Ines sees a man with not much ambition beyond telling a few bad jokes.
Winfried soon leaves much to Ines’ relief. But when she takes some colleagues out, they meet ‘Toni Erdmann’ – her father in an ill-fitting wig and false teeth, who makes vague claims as to being some sort of a consultant. As Ines reluctantly plays along – more to prevent herself from being exposed then for any real desire to indulge her father – Toni starts to bring about a subtle change in Ines’ outlook on life.
Toni Erdmann is a satire on the emptiness of middle class aspiration. From the very first moments of her introduction, Ines’ life revolves around work as she jockeys for position among her colleagues and negotiates a complex web of client interactions that are as banal as they are facile. Even her sex life – in the film’s faintly absurdist sex scene – is subordinated to her work life, as it becomes a conduit for her to worry about what her boss thinks about her. The world she inhabits is one of offices, modernist clubs and sterile conference rooms – all designed to make people comfortable yet giving off an air of fakery and humanity by rote. It seems no accident that her outsourcing consultancy may cost the jobs of many Romanian workers – it highlights how removed from ‘reality’ that Ines has become, with humans becoming a mere collection of numbers.
But Ade refrains from making Ines and her life some sort of pantomime cliché. Winfried’s disruption of her world is handled with believability; he doesn’t wander into her life as some sort of wise guru who will make her see the error of her ways. Indeed, he’s just as flawed as she is and there’s an inherent irony in his attempting to show up the perceived shallowness of her existence by indulging in fakery himself. Even when the film reaches its most absurd moments – Ines’ revealing birthday party, for instance – it still feels very much grounded in reality.
The performances are uniformly excellent, with Hüller constantly moving about, a nervous bag of energy trying to climb higher in a world that just doesn’t care. Simonischek lollops across the screen like a big St. Bernard begging everyone to love him. Their portrayals are multi-layered and complex and revel in subtlety. Their comedy is not rooted in broad slapstick or even clever wordplay – it’s about those moments of shared understanding of their situations and the desire for freedom that edges each character closer to being more comfortable in the world they inhabit.
While it’s unsurprising that Hollywood have snapped up the film for a remake (with Jack Nicholson and Kirsten Wiig as the father and daughter), it will be interesting to see whether it will be anything like the original. While Hollywood is often rooted in melodrama – the big, the side-splitting, the grandiose set-piece – Toni Erdmann has none of these things. It’s a (sometimes painfully) realistic depiction of modern day values that takes its time, but is compelling every step of the way.
Toni Erdmann is available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription.
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