It’s almost impossible to nail down the appeal of writer-director Maren Ade’s exceptional Toni Erdmann in a few words — calling it a comedy undersells its dramatic weight and emotional affectiveness, while trying to define it as a drama would do a great injustice to one of the funniest movies of the year. How do you explain a film that managed to elicit some of the biggest laughs I’ve had in a theater, and yet still managed to make me tear up by the end? Anyone put off at the prospect of siting through nearly three hours of subtitles should reevaluate their concerns, because the spectrum of emotional resonance this film covers is staggering, and its entertainment value marks it as a must-see.
If Erdmann’s premise seems superficially uncomplicated, its execution is anything but. Toni Erdmann is a pseudonymous character adopted by Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek), an aging music teacher with a penchant for performing practical jokes at every inappropriate opportunity. Anchored by an elderly mother and decrepit dog, Winfried’s life is one characterized by routine, but enlivened by his anarchic sense of humor. It’s his sense of nose-thumbing jocularity that brings him into conflict with his semi-estranged adult daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller), a painfully straight-laced corporate consultant seemingly devoid of any sense of humor at all. It sounds like an odd couple setup that’s been depicted in a thousand variations, but Erdmann takes it to surrealistic extremes that make the level of pathos the film manages to develop almost incomprehensible in context. I’m not quite sure how Ade pulled off such a feat, but this is one film that I will absolutely revisit in the hopes of figuring it out.
Ines is brought back into Winfried’s life by an early birthday celebration, and her level of professional anxiety sounds alarm bells for her free-spirited dad — so after his dog dies, he sets off to Bucharest to find out exactly why his daughter seems so unhappy. The world he discovers is one of corporate ladder-climbing, institutional sexism and meaningless relationships. So what’s a dad to do? In Winfried’s case, pop in some ever-ready joke teeth and insinuate himself into his daughter’s social and professional life. As he struggles to reconnect with his only child, her frustration and disappointment becomes increasingly palpable until she finally gives him the brush off. But this is just the beginning of what becomes an incomparably engaging battle of wills, with Ines’ soul in the balance.
Ade shoots most of the film handheld, but with none of the shaky-cam visual flourishes that usually accompany such stylistic methodologies. Instead, the camera is there to impart an aesthetic immediacy that foregrounds character, as though the audience were active participants recording a family gathering. This allows for exemplary performances on the part of Simonischek and Hüller to retain their rightful prominence throughout the proceedings, grounding the film’s absurdist elements on the terra firma of emotional relatability. It’s impossible to overstate how good these two are in this film, and I confess to being filled with gut-wrenching dread at the prospect of Kristen Wiig and Jack Nicholson playing their parts in the upcoming American remake — there’s just no conceivable way they’re going to do this movie justice.
The script is understated in a Teutonic sort of way, deliberately paced but never slow — there isn’t a false beat or dull moment, a remarkable accomplishment for a film of this length. Ade’s sense of story structure is impeccable, delaying gratification and withholding information in all the right places to provide her big reveals and turning point their maximum efficacy. By the time the film’s Buñuelian third-act climax rolls around, Ines hosting a party in her birthday suit is possibly the least surprising development in the film — stripped of its shock value by Ade’s careful character construction, but imbued with comedic and emotional impact by the logic of her characters’ respective arcs.
While Toni Erdmann was neglected at this year’s major awards ceremonies (criminally so, in my opinion), the favor it’s won with critics is certainly well-deserved. Few films have come anywhere close to capturing the nature of parental bonds with the level of honesty and insight that Ade achieves here, and few statements on the socioeconomic woes of modern western capitalism have been so cognizant of the human element underlying an increasingly debauched culture. And yet, despite the big issues on display here, Toni Erdmann is principally distinguished by its even bigger heart. This is a film that made me want to leave the theater and immediately go hug my dad, my mom, my dog — really anybody or anything that I care deeply about. That a bizarre German dram-com could accomplish such a feat without coming across as saccharine or manipulative is nothing short of a minor miracle. Rated R for strong sexual content, graphic nudity, language and brief drug use. German, English and Romanian dialogue with English subtitles.
Now Playing at Fine Arts Theatre.