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.
Toni Erdmann would be a fun watch even if it was just this grown up, role-reversed spiritual sequel to Gerard Depardieu and Katherine Heigl’s My Father The Hero (which I like to imagine was big in Germany†, a la David Hasselhoff). And the escalating improv game, where father and daughter get to see previously hidden sides of each other (and themselves) via increasingly perverse rounds of comedic cat and mouse, would certainly be entertaining enough on its own. But the beauty of Erdmann is that “Toni” crashing Ines’s coke-fueled nightclub parties with her gropey colleagues isn’t just there to create a provocative sex romp. (Ines also plays a hilarious, and again, very German, sex game with her sort-of boyfriend, involving withheld intercourse and semen-covered French confectionary.)
Through Ines’s job, Toni Erdmann is also a commentary on the broken promises of globalization. She kills herself working on these big presentations pitching newer, more expensive development projects, with shiny graphs and fudged statistics, even as the clues that these projects are only delivering fugazi prosperity pile up around her — lavish malls with no customers, an oil worker covered in black grease who gets fired after “Toni” makes a joke about him (much to Winfried’s horror), and Ines’s boss, who says of Germany, “I like countries with a middle class. It relaxes me.”
Meanwhile, Ines inhabits this world of cokey nightclub outings and lavish “me days” at luxury hotels, where she treats the local workers like servants. Her social circles are hierarchical this way, with her expat globalist playboys on one level and the local collaborators on a lower rung. Her father is rightfully somewhat horrified to discover all of this, but Toni Erdmann isn’t some simplistic ’90s comedy where the free spirit teaches the workaholic to loosen up (by, say, throwing her cell phone into a body of water — “My whole life was in there!”). Because the other element of Toni Erdmann is generational.
Ines has become materialistic, but it’s not necessarily some personal flaw. She’s a ruthless overachiever, but that’s at least partly because, for her generation, there don’t seem to be many other options. You either work like hell to keep your spot in the shrinking middle class or get left behind. So when Winfried tells Ines to loosen up, he’s not just dispensing helpful fatherly advice. Partly it’s his generation, the Boomer generation, looking down from their place of comfortable prosperity and guaranteed vacation days where you can be a clown at the local school and still afford a house and spur-of-the-moment trips to Romania obnoxiously wondering “Gee, why are these Millennials so uptight?”
It’s a new world with more complicated conflicts, which makes a lot of Boomer platitudes frustrating and unhelpful. My friend Matt Louv has a comedy bit about this, a Star Wars parable picturing the Boomers as still drunk on memories of their victory at Endor trying to give advice to a new generation of rebels battling a much more powerful Empire: “Yeah, but did you do the thing with the logs?
The film comes to a crescendo with an absurd send-up of corporate culture, specifically the corporate culture that has resulted from the collision of touchy-feely new age hippie values and prosperity doctrine. I refuse to spoil this for you at all here (you can read it in other reviews if you want), but suffice it to say, it’s wonderful.
There follows an absurd sequence involving Ines chasing Winfried, wearing an 8-foot tall, traditional central Asian fur costume, through a city park. The image is absolutely unforgettable, iconic in the same way as the final slow-motion tracking shot in Short Term 12, or the second-to-last scene of the Sopranos finale, with Paulie sunning himself while the cat-who-might-be-Christopher saunters by. Unfortunately, as in the case of The Sopranos, Toni Erdmann doesn’t end there (you could write a book on perfect shots movies should’ve ended on — the second to last scene in No Country For Old Men also comes to mind). It goes on a bit. Being a little too long doesn’t spoil the film by any means, but there would’ve been a nice symmetry to the year’s most singular film going out on its most unforgettable shot.
†It should be noted here, just so I don’t look like the Ugly American, that My Father The Hero was actually a remake of a successful French movie of the same name. Though it’s the American version Ade cites as an influence in this interview. (I had no idea there was a deliberate connection until I started writing this review, I thought it was just a funny parallel.)