Director: Maren Ade
Stars: Peter Simonischek, Sandra Hüller, Thomas Loibl
What does it take to make an American watch a film that’s not in the English language? If that sounds like the feed line for a joke that’s fitting considering the movie in question here is one of the funniest to appear in many years. I don’t have a punchline for you, nor do I sincerely feel like such a broadly sweeping question is in any way fair to a populous of so many millions of individuals. But you do wonder sometimes. This week, as Maren Ade’s wonderful Toni Erdmann arrives in UK cinemas, it has been announced that an American remake is already underway. Not only that, but the one and only Jack Nicholson is to come out of retirement to do it. That extra factoid puts an intriguing spin on things, but still we’re back yet again with the question; why can’t America embrace a foreign language film?
If it really is just laziness, then it’s your loss, ‘MURICA. Ade’s film is in part so wonderful because it is hers. You can rebuild it anyway you like, but this is a one-of-a-kind piece of work, and though it’s easy to blanch and sneer jokingly at the prospect of a German comedy that’s nearly three hours long, this is one that’s absolutely worth your attention. Some it it’s even in English.
Peter Simonischek plays Winfried Conradi, prankster father to careerist Ines (Sandra Hüller). They’ve grown estranged, largely as she’s so busy with her job, but more simply because… that’s what happens between parents and their children. She works for a consultancy firm that is, at the time of this film, structuring a deal with an oil company to outsource their Romanian workforce. Essentially, it’s her job to lay people off. When Winfried’s beloved dog Willi dies, he decides to pay Ines a visit in Bucharest where she is staying temporarily for work. His persistence is much to her dismay. He hijacks meetings, creates a bewigged alter-ego, and relentlessly reinserts himself into her life. That’s Toni Erdmann; an odd-couple comedy, a father and daughter piece, an expertly written situation comedy, and a thoroughly touching piece of humane observational drama.
Ade’s film earns its unruly-sounding running time with complete ease through its patient but rewarding methodology. She is wholly aware of the pitch and rhythm of her film, allowing long pauses for sections of perceived normality so that, when Winfried interjects, Toni Erdmann suddenly feels thrown off-balance – like Ines – perilously exploring new and unknown trajectories. It’s all carefully organised, however. Ade never loses sight of her intent, though there’s a freeness to how scenes play out. She allows her actors to corpse without calling cut, accepting that in the real world people find funny things funny. When they then resume the scene it makes them feel all the more natural. As crazy as some of her set-ups are, they all read as believable due to her approach.
And they’re all meaningful. Be it the private significance of a cheese grater or the metaphorical raised eyebrow over a handcuff gag gone wrong, Toni Erdmann is a scripted piece, not a hit-n-hope improv exercise. This is a considered character driven story, with comedic set-pieces designed to further the relationship between the two leads, either steering them closer together or pushing them apart. It is always possible to view Erdmann from either Winfried or Ines’ perspective. To her, he is an unfathomable irritant; to him she is his lost child, denying herself joy. The audience, seeing both, is allowed the God’s eye perspective. Ade asks us to see the inherent tragedy in both of them. Without forcing the issue, without signposting it, she makes Toni Erdmann a sincerely moving experience. She asks her audience to laugh, and patiently prompts them to feel.
It is telling that Erdmann is at it’s most rueful when our characters are alone rather than when they are together. Winfried’s early discover of his dead dog is as heartbreaking as his devotion to sleeping outside all night to keep the canine company in its final hours. While a slight reprieve from her father’s manic invasions allows Ines a moment to just weep. These are pauses for breath in a film which for the most part encourages pure enjoyment from the viewer rather than bittersweet reflection. The absurdist situations far outstrip these naked moments of sadness, but without them the film would be so much less.
The leads are magnificent. Simonischek paints Winfried as earnestly concerned for his daughter’s well-being. Unable to fathom a process of communication with her, he resorts to his joke false-teeth and kooky range of personas as a sort of shorthand to petition her inner child. We understand, by the end, that they were close once. He asks her to regress to meet him at a place of intimacy that hopefully has not passed.
Hüller, meanwhile, treats Ines with absolute credibility as a professional woman who loves her work, but there is an undercurrent there, an emptiness or self-sacrifice for her steel. It is as though she has compartmentalised a part of her self in order to prove herself capable in an arena still deemed very much a man’s world. Crucially, however, Toni Erdmann doesn’t condemn her for this. It is a choice that is hers to make. It only suggests, through her father, that it might not be her healthiest course.
The most seemingly disposable section of the film – a trip to an oil field – might actually prove the most vital. It is here that Winfried appeals to the idealist within Ines. The entire film is a process of reconciliation, of two opposites finding a position of middle ground. With his Toni Erdmann alter ego, Winfried presents his daughter an option to approach her life differently. She responds to the invitation, eventually flexing her own creative muscles to extended comedic effect. You’ll never see a birthday brunch quite like it.
The immediate aftermath of this is a well-earned bear-hug of a scene, an ecstatic emotional release that is notable for its restraint as much as its surreal simplicity. Ade doesn’t cut out there, though conceivably she could and take the emotional high. She knows there’s a little further to go. But the coda is perfectly judged and Toni Erdmann ends at exactly the right instant. I sat in the audience and inaudibly whispered, “now” and damn, the film cut to black. Like virtually everything else here, that final shot is exactly the right one; Ade finishes on a quiet moment that hits like an emotional firework. That’s the real punchline.