I caught up with Maren Ade’s “Toni Erdmann” at an odd stop along the festival circuit: Alamo Drafthouse’s Fantastic Fest, a far different crowd from the high-minded cinephiles lining the Croisette at Cannes, filling the gondolas at Telluride or packing New York’s Lincoln Center. Sandwiched between genre fare at the festival was this German comedy of manners that has become the year’s critical darling. And yet, the connection between the film and one about cannibals felt apparent to me.
I consider that a testament to just how remarkable Ade’s work is, at once so assured and so open to a multiplicity of reads. Part of that may be a natural result of a 162 minute runtime – for what its worth, the film never feels it. But “Toni Erdmann” is not simply impressive because Ade keeps a great number of plates spinning; in fact, the simplicity of the father-daughter story has stuck with me as much as anything. Through such tight focus on their dynamic, Ade can then shed light onto some relevant themes and issues adjacent to the narrative.
As the film begins, aging prankster Winfried (Peter Simonischek) seeks a new outlet for his antics following the passing of his beloved dog. Around this time, his distant offspring Ines (Sandra Hüller) washes up in Germany again. Winfried jokes about hiring a “replacement daughter,” an idea at which she scoffs. But her brisk dismissal sparks in him a much grander idea that will first drive a tremendous wedge between them – with the goal of perhaps ultimately draw them closer together.
Ines works as a mid-management level consultant in Bucharest, gluing herself to a cell phone screen and PowerPoint presentation to forcefully make the case for outsourcing jobs to the far reaches of the EU. Just as she needs to be closing the deal with the client, who appears at every inopportune moment but Winfried? Only here, he has donned the guise of Toni Erdmann, an unkempt straight-talker who immediately foils with Ines’ buttoned-up sterility.
The immediate aim is embarrassment, which often takes a raucous and ribald form. Yet the long-term objective is mortification: breaking down Ines so she can rebuild herself in a more compassionate way. Watching Ines squirm is an honest (albeit guilty) delight, especially because Hüller pulls from a vast repertoire to express the character’s discomfort in her face and body language.
Even though her pitch is based on business and bottom-line, Winfried/Toni exposes a truth Ines routinely forgets: important decisions are made with a human connection. Her insistence on appealing primarily to logic leaves her open to getting flanked with sexist attacks for her cold, shrewd demeanor. A few discomfiting nudges from the Toni persona awakens her to the double standards that make her work twice as hard for half the respect.
On a grander scale, however, “Toni Erdmann” is a film about the cost of the ruthless efficiency that Ines both practices and sells. Its byproducts include the corroded relationships and exacerbated generation gaps between parents and siblings. But on a grander scale, it drives inequality throughout Europe. Ade provides a few glances of Romanian poverty throughout in the form of shots where the camera drifts a little further than the characters want to see, or when it holds on a sight that they would rather ignore. The macro and the micro each have so much to offer in the film, making it the delicious kind of work that deserves to be held up and reexamined under one’s ever-changing personal and political circumstances. B+ /