Sony Pictures Classics
Toni Erdmann (2016)
This deeply strange German movie is about the limits of not only capitalism but also the human heart. Although it is focused on a German father and daughter, it is set mainly in Romania with characters who almost all speak at least three languages fluently. There is a genuinely outré sex scene which you will remember every time you see petit fours for the rest of your life. It’s being described as a comedy; but since the comedy is an odd combination of pathos and slapstick, it’s not the relaxing kind of laughter. In other words, this is a genuine one-off.
Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek), a divorced music teacher, lives in western Germany with his elderly dog. One day he gets a surprise call that his adult daughter, Ines (Sandra Hüller), is in town. Ines is a management consultant based in Bucharest, working with an oil company to automate its plants and therefore downsize its workforce. Winfried shows up wearing ghoulish face paint and is treated with amused detachment by the rest of the group. Ines has to spend most of the day fielding work calls, and Winfried feels – well, we don’t know how he feels. But something changes in his life, and he reacts by showing up unannounced in Bucharest, with fake teeth and a wig, to surprise Ines while she is in an important meeting and preparing for a major presentation. Ines is caught between trying to maintain her professionalism and being kind to her dad. Winfried manages to escalate the joke so far he gets himself business cards printed that identify him as Toni Erdmann, life coach.
Of course, he’s only able to take things so far because Ines lives in a business culture, where her friends are other expats, like British Steph (Lucy Russell), or her colleagues Gerald (Thomas Loibl) and Tim (Trystan Pütter). Her sweet assistant Anca (Ingrid Bisu) is a crucial part of the team, but due to her junior status and doe eyes no one takes her seriously. Winfried’s behavior is never called out; in fact no one treats him with anything other than respect, even as they watch him with amazement or shock. Someone who cheerfully ignores social conventions can get away with it when he knows what he is doing. If Toni’s shtick was unkind, he would have been shut down immediately; but because it’s so harmlessly ridiculous he gets away with it. However, Ines must lie through her teeth to cover up the truth of their connection.
Ines is good at her job (and this movie has an accurate a depiction of the modern working world as ever captured on film), but as she is a woman it also involves going shoe shopping with her client’s new Russian wife (Viktoria Malektorovych). It also means her choice of boyfriends is limited to the men she works with, as her life in Bucharest is only about her job. It was Anca who chose her flat for her, for example, and she goes everywhere by taxi or car service. Winfried is worried that she is not nearly as happy as he made out. Ines is focusing so much on her business persona that her personal life is struggling – and it all builds to an spectacular party sequence at the end which is both utterly unbelievable and absolutely believable. The desperation for human connection in a place where no one belongs is palpable – and the willingness to humor anyone unusual is part of it. So this is a comedy, but lest we get too comfortable with that label please remember that it’s one bookended by death, and the awareness of age and the fallibility of our bodies. It’s about relationships – but also about how impossible it is to truly know someone, whether in a lifetime or just one strange moment. It has “Plainsong” by the Cure playing over the end credits for no reason, except if you listen to the lyrics they sum up the entire film.
How did writer-director Maren Ade pull this off? Describing it sounds ridiculous and watching it is about the same. The pacing drags in places but them something electric happens. The characters are unforgettable and the scenarios they create for themselves are the same. An American remake has already been announced; but one of the nicest things about this movie is its almost total divorcement from American culture. The one glorious exception is a full-out performance of Whitney Houston’s “Greatest Love of All.” How are the Americans going to top this?