Few foreign films from the international festival circuit have generated nearly as much buzz in the past few years as Toni Erdmann has. Debuting to raucous applause at the Cannes Film Festival and garnering the widest critical consensus at said festival in a long while, only to be completely ignored by the jury at awards time, Maren Ade’s film seemed destined to become legendary eight whole months before it was released in the United States. Of course, the nature of film discourse today inflates the reputations, for good or ill, of movies immediately after they show to any audience, but Toni Erdmann presents a particularly strange and more than valid case.
There are understandably equal amounts of truth and falsehood in what Toni Erdmann has essentially been distilled down to: a three-hour German comedy. This simple description goes some way in describing what the film is like and a long way in describing its appeal to critics and arthouse audiences. As many have noted, the premise—a father trying to cheer up and reconnect with his workaholic daughter—has a sort of broad appeal that belies the movie’s length and subtly rigorous construction. Indeed, the film is frequently bawdy and ribald, unafraid to go for the obvious or crass joke. But, at least for this reviewer, the film is much more on the dramatic side, teasing out the complexities of the central relationship in the modern world in ways both heartbreaking and hilarious.
Physicality might be a strange thing to discuss in a (non-slapstick) comedic context, but it is vital to Toni Erdmann and especially to the incredible performances of Sandra Hüller (Ines) and Peter Simonischek (Winfried). The two have a briskness and heaviness, respectively, that bounce perfectly off each other, setting the two as foils and odd companions. Spending so much time with these characters allows the viewer to observe their mannerisms and ever-so-subtle changes that signal key developments, and the two actors maintain a consistency that feels perfectly tuned to the particular key that the film stays in throughout.
Even more importantly however, is how fine a line Ade walks at times between cruelty and comedy, in the way that Winfried’s pranks in his “disguise” as the eponymous life coach threaten to undo the hard but mostly soulless work that Ines is doing. There is genuine emotion in the way that the father and daughter act, in how they simply look at each other in a club (while, improbably, a remix of the song “Safe and Sound” blares) or Winfried gazes at his daughter while they are on the road. Much of the film plays in relative silence, creating a roughly equivalent balance to the madcap comedy and allowing the viewer to reflect along with the characters upon exactly where they are in more ways than one.
Still, at the end of the day, Toni Erdmann is a sensation, for its wit, its cutting satire of the modern business world (where a particularly hilarious decision towards the end of the film completely upsets any sense of normalcy), and its heart. There are two particular scenes that I won’t go into that almost feel like showstoppers, but much of the beauty in the film is that it keeps going. Toni Erdmann does feel like three hours, but it uses them with such precision, such care that it makes the beautifully ambiguous epilogue all the more strange and powerful. The horrible wig and false teeth of Toni Erdmann are the film’s primary signifiers, but its contemplation is equally lasting.