Director: Maren Ade
Cast: Sandra Hüller, Peter Simonischek
Running time: 162 minutes
Bizarre, funny, and full of heart – Maren Ade’s brilliant low-key comedy number, Toni Erdmann, is certainly worth making a big deal about.
Following the death of his dog, divorced Piano teacher and full-time practical joker, Winfried Conradi (Simonischek), ventures to Bucharest under the guise of alter-ego Toni Erdmann in the hope of reconnecting with his estranged daughter (Hüller), who is struggling with the demands of her hectic work life.
A comedy from Germany? We know, we know – no such thing, right?
In fact, this might just be one of the most uniquely satisfying, complete comedies of recent times. So please, leave any trepidation firmly at the door.
Writer/Director Ade has crafted a real gem with Toni Erdmann – a rare cocktail of laugh-out-loud humour, devastating truth, and underlying sincerity. This is a film quite unlike anything that has come before; painting a 3-hour long coming-of-middle-age tale of the most unconventional kind. At its centre lies Ines and Winfried – the most contrasting, but perfectly so – father and daughter duo. She is the ambitious, driven career woman who has allowed the working world and all its stresses and strains to completely consume her; on hand at all hours of the day, willing to cancel what little she has that resembles a social life at the drop of a hat. He is a total oddball; a bumbling practical joker who flutters around life as various, interchanging personas and who, by way of comparison, burdens himself with very little, other than a set of fake teeth and a wig of long brown hair – fashioning them at every available opportunity. And it’s through such polarised characterisation that the film begins to establish itself as a work of wider contrasts. Detailed, complex business discussion and more subtle gender politics are interjected with whoopee cushion gags, Whitney Houston renditions, and one scene involving Petit Fours that will undoubtedly taint any future viewing of The Great British Bake Off.
Crucially, however, despite the many binaries that run throughout, this is a film of two souls slowly coming together to overcome the very thing that binds them – loneliness. Amidst the weird and wonderful antics, this is a story of reconnection, loyalty and above all else, dwindling love slowly finding its way back.
In many ways, this is perhaps the most German comedy you could imagine. Akin perhaps most closely to The Office – if a point of reference really needs to be made – for long periods it doesn’t really feel like a comedy at all. But Ade masterfully uses these moments to steadily establish the growing dynamic between the two central characters, which soon manifests into something much deeper and more heartfelt. Yes, the film is a slow burner, but it’s to its strength that these moments are never rushed, and the humour rarely over-egged, culminating in a work of real organic truth that is as devastating as it is thoroughly enjoyable.
And such simultaneous emotional power and unadulterated joy can almost exclusively be traced back to Toni Erdmann’s two magnificent central performances. Peter Simonischek certainly has the more eye-catching of the two roles as the titular character. Instantly likeable, he is without question one of the most loveable oafs in modern cinema, and in the film’s final third, sports one of the greatest fancy dress costumes you’re ever likely to see. But always bubbling under the comedic façade, there is a sadness about him that, at times, threatens to spill out – it appears that only through Toni can Winfried hope to connect with his daughter, and when viewed in this way, it becomes apparent that he may just be the more afflicted of the two. Opposite him, the brilliant Sandra Hüller holds very little back (at one time quite literally) with Ines Conradi. Much of the narrative power rests on her shoulders as she quickly establishes herself as the film’s true driving force. Somewhat inevitably going under the radar when aligned with the humorous buffoonery of Simonischek, Hüller’s character is arguably more important to the film’s success – it is Ines who brings the film’s overriding relatability and emotional weighting. In an alternative existence, both might just be receiving Oscar acting nods.
You’ll laugh; you’ll cry; you’ll curse at the thought of the inevitable Hollywood remake. Toni Erdmann – rightfully taking its place among the nominations for Best Foreign Language Film at the upcoming Oscars – is a comedy treat of brilliantly contrasting layers and perfectly textured performances – just as long as that treat isn’t a green Petit Four…