Toni Erdmann did the whole awards circuit last year, coming agonisingly close to scooping the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film (narrowly beaten by The Salesman). Director Maren Ade’s black comedy-drama takes a look at the relationship between father and daughter, creating an uncomfortable, hilarious and thought-provoking film.
Our story follows retired music teacher (and old eccentric) Winfried Conradi as he attempts to reconnect with his estranged daughter, Ines, who is in the process of building a global corporate career. After his initial attempts to reconnect are snubbed, Winfried turns to his flamboyant alter-ego, the eponymous Toni Erdmann, as he gradually infiltrates Ines’ life by connecting with her co-workers in an effort to get closer to his daughter. What follows is an escalating battle of wits as Winfried/Toni and Ines unpick their complex relationship, and how they have affected each other in different ways throughout their lives.
Some will tell you that this film is a comedy, and while it certainly is funny, I feel that only ‘black comedy’ does the film any justice. There are some toe-curlingly awkward scenes that remind me of early The Office material, as the film experiments with nudity, costumes, and practical jokes. Director Maren Ade apparently said that “This will not be a comedy, this will be a very long and sad film”. It’s certainly very long, clocking in at a chunky 162 minutes, but it doesn’t suffer for it. The interaction between the characters is unpredictable and entertaining to watch, and Winfried is established early on as being capable of outdoing himself at every turn. Sandra Hüller in particular (who plays Winfried’s daughter, Ines) is fantastic at portraying a brittle and cold exterior that comes as a symptom of climbing the corporate ladder, whilst showcasing the emotional transformation that the reappearance of her father back into her life causes her to go through.
Toni Erdmann approaches the father/daughter dynamic in a truly interesting way, one which shows the father as being a pest, yet also necessary, and the daughter as uncaring, yet also justified. The balance has been struck perfectly, and the onscreen chemistry between Winfried and Ines reflects and reinforces this balance. Winfried’s heart is in the right place, even when he clearly crosses the line a few times (I’d like to think that hiding in your daughter’s closet after invading her apartment crosses a line), and Ines does a marvellous job of keeping up with her father’s shenanigans as her personal and professional lives collide.
Almost everything that could have been said about Toni Erdmann already has been. It’s been lauded by critics, laughed at, and cringed at. All that remains is what you take away from it, personally. For me, It just goes to show that we all need somewhere a little bit silly, a little bit comforting, and a little bit warm to return to when all is said and done.