When the movie Toni Erdmann entered our lives last May we assumed without agenda this was about a father’s relationship with his (grown-up) daughter. Which it kind of is, but more than that it turns out to be about a daughter, and her relationship with her (juvenile) father. This is not exactly a devastating plot twist or story revelation, but the unraveling of the narrative creeps up on you – taking us from an elderly man who deploys gaffs and teeth and a rather large personality, to the mental turmoils and current frenetic but fragile lifestyle of the level-headed businesswoman. Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek) and his seemingly estranged daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller) both deal with the mutual rejection and unfulfilment in very different ways. Black wig and fake teeth are a far cry from the frigid ambition of consultancy and commerce.
The father travels to Bucharest to “surprise” his daughter, who is unable to find the time for him initially, Winfried takes on the persona of Toni Erdmann – perhaps himself masking a lonely figure, unable to reach out directly. Writer-director Maren Ade doesn’t dwell on his apparent isolation for very long, she is more interested in his spontaneous and peculiar way he sets about his day. We don’ want to see a broken man or extremely euphoric man under all the layers, we roll with his gag punches, and see what we get. His perturbed and dumbfounded daughter, Ines, a business-head, stern looking woman, reacts to him with a kind of demagnetized body language, as though she may be allergic to him. This is, of course, an emotional bond that has been bruised over the years, we are left to guess as to which of them was the most responsible for this relationship falling into dysfunction.
Although it later drifts somewhat, Toni Erdmann feels very instantaneously set up, a comprehensive backstory we don’t see, but Ade executes her intentions so well we feel like we may have seen a kind of prequel, or read the character biographies prior to viewing. And so it goes, some of the comedy is rather melancholic or awkward, and some of the drama will make you laugh and nod with a bittersweet realization. You find yourself drawn to the characters as much perhaps as you are repelled. Ine’s blatant frustration and cold manner, and Winfried’s constant pranking about, can both get tiring for the audience watching, but no matter, character building and story enticing are made of this. Soon enough this becomes Ines’ story (and perhaps has been all along) the routine and repetitive of her day-to-day life is not enough, Ade’s long takes and lingering developments only emphasize this, even if it is on the back of a turtle.
Yes, the movie is too damn long. The plaudits thrown at Toni Erdmann are, to me, a little misaligned with a viewing experience I was part of. I like the movie, in spite of its frustrating missing-in-action moments, and perhaps went into this with the incredible hype on my shoulders. The now famous naked brunch scene towards the end is funny in its social tragedy, for it’s literal naked ambitions, but also it brings you right back when perhaps your attention was waning. The talented Ade blends a whole array of embarrassing, exposing, emotive human behaviors (as she did so well with Everyone Else), and I still can’t decide if she is a better screenwriter or director here. Never mind, Ade paves a way for a nook of cinema, whether we embrace it or not, that is rarely seen or felt. I don’t know her well enough to inform you of her knowledge of the corporate world, or the ups and downs of family life, but it is clear that a lot of elbow grease went into constructing this.