DIR/WRI: Maren Ade • PRO: Maren Ade, Jonas Dornbach, Janine Jackowski, Michel Merkt • DOP: Patrick Orth • ED: Heike Parplies • DES: Silke Fischer • CAST: Sandra Huller, Peter Simonischek, Michael Wittenborn, Thomas Loibl, Ingrid Bisu, Trystan Putter, Hadewych Minis, Lucy Russell
Winfried (Simonischek) is a lonely, retired piano-teacher, separated from his wife. He lives in Germany and rarely gets to see his daughter Ines (Huller), a high-flying business consultant based in Bucharest. When Winfried’s dog dies it prompts Winfried to pay his daughter a visit unannounced. With Ines in the middle of trying to broker an important deal, the trip doesn’t go well. She is short on free time to spend with him and practical joke-loving Winfried causes her much embarrassment when she brings him along to a work conference. He leaves after a couple of days and Ines returns to her normal life. However, it isn’t long before Winfried turns up again but now as his alter-ego Toni Erdmann, complete with a bad wig and false teeth. Toni follows Ines around, claiming to be her CEO’s life coach.
The premise of Toni Erdmann could in itself be that of a mainstream American comedy. However, Maren Ade layers this extraordinary film with a haunting sense of melancholy and astute social and psychological observations, creating something utterly singular, provocative and profound. The film is at once a moving father-daughter tale, a scathing satire of corporate culture and a rumination on the manner in which people perform in their day to day lives.
Ade has spoken of the pressure she was under from her producers to reduce the film’s 162-minute length. Her admirable refusal to budge is integral to the considerable qualities of the film. Ade’s slow, observational style allows for Cassavetes-like richness of characterization and elevates the film’s humour beyond mere punchlines into a profound meditation on human behaviour. The film’s increasingly surreal scenarios as Toni follows Ines around are hilarious- in a desperately awkward sense- because of how well-established and authentic these two characters feel and how well drawn their opposing traits are.
Similarly the length of the piece allows Ade the time to establish each of the supporting characters and allow them time to breathe. Her depiction of dog-eat-dog corporate culture feels utterly authentic. Ines, despite being exceptionally good at her job, is frequently met by chauvinism. Her odious CEO Hennenberg (Wittenborn) insists she take his wife out on a shopping spree around Bucharest. Ines herself is guilty of indulging her co-worker Gerald’s (Loibl) misogynistic remarks about her self-less assistant Anca (Bisu). The hierarchical nature of big business culture where the person in charge of another person treats them heinously is illustrated candidly and comprehensively. In one sequence when Ines and Winfried/Toni visit an oil field in a rural, impoverished area in Romania, Ade draws a stark image of the contrast between the shallow, greedy corporate world that Ines’ colleagues exist in with that of the harsh realities of the people working at ground level.
In that sequence Winfried/Toni tells one of the locals ‘not to lose the humour’. This exhibits Winfried’s attitude to humour and how it’s a means of performance and escape. The film examines the roles that people play in everyday life and how people perform as an extension of their loneliness. Winfried’s humour is something of defence mechanism. This can also be seen in the dark humour he exchanges with his very elderly mother in which he claims he has taken up a new job in an old person’s home where he literally scares the elderly to death for fifty euro a pop. Winfried’s joking is brought to its maximum point with his creation of the Toni Erdmann character.
Similarly to her father seeking comedy as a means of distraction, Ines’s obsessive workaholic nature covers up her own crushing sadness. She frequently has imaginary conversations on her mobile phone to avert conversations with people. When her father leaves Bucharest for the first time, despite how much he irritates and embarrasses her, she cries inconsolably on her balcony. In its examination of performance and its relationship to mental well-being the film has some shades of Lars von Trier’s The Idiots. This is also seen in a hilarious, much-talked about nude party scene in the latter stages of the film.
The film’s stark authenticity of both humour and pathos, as well as psychological observation, is complimented by Ade’s aesthetic. Cinematographer Patrick Orth shoots everything in low-key light in a quasi-documentary style. Silke Fisher’s production design is evocative of the drab, autumnal shade of Winfried’s current existence in Germany and the clinical alienation of Ines’ world in Bucharest. The film uses music very sparingly and when used it is diegetic. Fabian Schmidt’s sound design immerses the viewer into the naturalism of the day to day sounds. A heart-breaking, surreal moment of emotional crescendo is played completely to the natural sounds of city life to thrillingly evocative and original effect.
Of course, the film wouldn’t be successful in its singular triumphs were it not for the superlative central performances from Huller and Simionschek. Huller brings an extraordinary amount of range to her role exhibiting strength, intelligence, vulnerability, melancholy and playfulness. Simionschek brilliantly captures the fragile exuberance and unconventional (and frequently misguided) kindness of Winfried. These two are ably supported by a superb supporting cast who each get characters with more nuance and veracity than the leads in many other films.
A truly original, endlessly rich, extremely moving and quietly transcendental piece of work.
16 (See IFCO for details)
Toni Erdmann is released 3rd February 2017
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