Title: Toni Erdmann
Country: Germany, Austria, Romania
Language: German, English, Romanian
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Director/Writer: Maren Ade
Cinematography: Patrick Orth
The top seed of 2017 Oscar’s BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE PICTURE race is from Germany, TONI ERDMANN, director Maren Ade’s third feature, debuted in Cannes last year, was given a cold shoulder from the jury, but has been riding a terrific winning streak ever since, it is an unconventional arthouse pleaser on top of its very arthouse premise – where its poster cagily teases something very eccentric and surreal is in the offering, aka. that black furry thing, which successfully tickles one’s curiosity. But why “unconventional”? Because the film unyieldingly flouts our anticipation of wackiness and refuses to take its subject out of its mundane context, only to achieve a therapeutically sloughing catharsis.
The opening shots take a close stance with overlong pauses (Ade and her DP’s M.O. in keeping a wary eye on its character, seldom becomes noticeably intrusive by nimbly slithering among the surroundings), where we are introduced to a salt-and-pepper German man Winfried Conradi (Simonischek), whose avuncular casualness is undermined by his deadpan trick of impersonation he plays on the overtly uncomfortable delivery man, is that supposed to be funny or creepy? Then the film doles out more background information about Winfried, a high school music teacher, divorced, has a senescent mother and leads a rather lonely life with his aging dog, his offbeat temperament and sloven mien is more alienating than amiable among his acquaintances.
Instigated by the death of his dog, Winfried takes a spontaneous trip to Bucharest, where his daughter Ines (Hüller) works as a corporate strategist, who is always busy and far away. Of course, Winfried’s visit wrong-foots Ines, it is not a convenient time (and there will never be one), she is under serious strain apropos of an imminent business presentation which really matters to her career, and seems subconsciously discomfited of Winfried’s gawky presence, a sneaking wisp of mortification stems right from her distant demeanour. Finding himself quite an inconvenience, Winfried decides to cut his visit short. A big relief for Ines, it seems, but little does she know that her smouldering exasperation, pent-up frustration and engulfing vacuity (both in her profession and personal life) will spur Winfried to bring about his alter ego, the titular Toni Erdmann by virtue of a straggly wig and a pair of denture, into Ines’s stifled careerist life-pattern, he haunts around her like a phantasm, invents different identities (a life coach, the German ambassador) to get himself involved. After the initial shock, Ines acquiesces to play along, introduces him to her friends and her decadent lifestyle, even brings him with her on a business sortie, conversely, through Toni, her icy shield would slowly break apart by humanly interactions, and the crux is an impromptu nude party where she finally sheds off all the hypocrisy and baggage life imposed on her and sees clearly for the first time who are real friends and who are just passing phonies, also a consummating hug to her father who is trapped in a giant mascot costume leavens both enthralling quirkiness and tear-eyed earnestness.
What TONI ERDMANN presses home is a rare bracing otherness and confidence totally unencumbered by the painful self-consciousness one cannot run away in our lives, then, Ms. Ade spikes it with organic humor to sustain its watchability and also with reflexive contemplation to hoist viewers to vicariously face the same quandary, Ines and Winfried’s daughter-father relation crashingly reflects modern society’s pandemic pathology: businesslike politeness, apathy, superficiality and emotional-clogging – which has undergone a judicious and unsentimental vivisection through the high-wire dexterity of Ade and her crew.
Sandra Hüller’s crowning moment is her emotive live rendition of THE GREATEST OF ALL, swipes as an emotional crunch after the film’s painstaking process of paving ballast. Most of the time, she never relents in manifesting her real emotions, but when she does, whether it is obnoxious (the twisted semen-swallowing power showboating), idiosyncratic (the whimsical idea of a nude party), or heartfelt (the scene where she watches her father leave in a taxi from her terrace), she holds court with utter conviction and empathy, what an extraordinary feat not the least because on paper, Ines is such a repugnant character benumbed by her unwholesome surroundings and stuck in her own toughened and barely tangible superiority. Peter Simonischek, strikingly counterpoises as an outré figure but infuses Winfried with a self-deprecating geniality and unspoken tenderness, who splashes out sage life philosophy to his workaholic daughter, a father figure rings true to many a spectator.
A brilliantly serio-comic exposition on the alienation and reconnection in today’s world, TONI ERDMANN is Ade’s magnum opus which intrepidly bucks the trend of bombastic artifice, and returns to a slow-burning set-up nevertheless full of scintillating whims and unexpected epiphanies.