Toni Erdmann is a whacked out, heartwarming-yet-moderately perverse combination of My Father the Hero and Y Tu Mamá Tambien, a father-daughter tragi-comedy that’s also a comment on the generation gap and the broken promises of globalization. It manages to be both singularly German yet universal, and even across a barrier of language, work culture, and scat sexuality, it still has that unmistakable ring of familiarity. Written and directed by Maren Ade, it combines the political and the personal, the meditative and the pointed, in a film that’s as funny as it is sad and as outrageous as it is relevant; it’s the most unique film of the year.
Peter Simonischek plays Winfried, a big-hearted old oddball who works with kids and loves to play the ham — think the non-obnoxious Patch Adams of the German school system. Winfried has a somewhat strained but loving relationship with his daughter, Ines (played by Sandra Hüller), a 30-something career woman who’s killing herself trying to move up in a boys’ club development firm. They have a child-father relationship familiar to me and probably a lot of us, where you love your parents to death even if being in the same room with them for too long will eventually drive you insane. Winfried, meanwhile, who has the soulful, mischievous eyes and expressive eyebrows of a German shepherd, seems to know where all this daughter’s buttons are and can’t help pushing them.
She makes excuses to avoid him, and he retaliates by showing up unannounced in Bucharest, where her firm is working with the government on a development project. She always seems to be working, so instead of hanging in his hotel room or seeing the sights, he takes to crashing her work functions wearing a pair of fake teeth, introducing himself to her colleagues as “Toni Erdmann,” while she shoots him daggers with her eyes and tries to maintain outward composure. She’s embarrassed at first, naturally, and so she’s cool and downplaying towards this buck-toothed, Tommy Wiseau-esque “stranger.” But when she realizes that isn’t working, she starts leaning into it, trying to draw him out and poke holes in his character, sort of like when comedians realize that the same hecklers who get brave when you shush them tend to clam up when put them on the spot. Only in Ines and Toni’s case, this leads to what amounts to a game of improv chicken — who’s going to blink first? Their dynamic creates a humor I like to think of as especially German, equal parts lurid, unapologetically dorky, and meticulously crafted.