Updated: May 15, 2019
2016, 162 Min., Germany/Austria Co-Production, Budget: 3.4 Mil. (estimated)
What an enchanting film! But not nearly how’d you’d expect. There’s something delightfully understated about modern European cinema, something that can be interpreted as a respect for the intelligence of the audience. In the case of Toni Erdmann, however, that respect transcends traditional intelligence, going for something even more elusive: the audience’s emotional intelligence. That in and of itself makes this film a true treasure. But then there’s the performances, the sure-footed style that never overwhelms, the narrative surprises, the deeply affecting moments of pathos written without philosophizing... The list of wonderful qualities can go on and on, as can the film. At 162 minutes, the movie takes its time, allowing you to get to know the characters organically, to live with them awhile. This is unusual for a modern “dramedy,” which usually only has enough gas to plod along for the easily digestible 90 minutes. But despite the film’s long-windedness, you’re never left looking at your watch or checking your phone. In fact, it allows for the wry moments of humor to unfold without traditional set ups. The comedy comes from within the characters and accentuates a film that is otherwise quite serious.
Simply, Toni Erdmann casts a spell of intrigue from its opening shots, while also somehow being altogether straightforward: An eccentric piano teacher named Winfried (Peter Simonischek) with a proclivity for practical jokes loses his dog (he dies peacefully beneath a tree). His grief inspires the playful father to pay an impromptu visit to his workaholic daughter Ines (played with bravery by Sandra Hüller) in Romania, where her job has presently placed her. Their relationship is strained... not because of some contrived movie reason, but because sometimes adult children and their parents don’t know how to exist with one another. Ines spends a few awkward days dragging her dad around to work functions (he embarrasses her, of course), and finally, she gives him a polite brush-off. But little does Ines know, instead of going back home, her dad dons one of his crazy “characters,” complete with black wig and silly buck-toothed falsies -- the aforementioned Toni Erdmann has arrived! He begins stalking her at work, showing up in character and not letting on that they’re related. He claims to be the life-coach to the CEO of Ines’ company... and not very convincingly. He watches her snort cocaine with a colleague she’s sleeping with, rubbing a dab of the white stuff along the gums of his fake teeth. Ines tries to fight him at first, to get him to just go away, but quickly realizes it’s no use. Winfried is truly an unpredictable character. We’re not sure what he might do next, and neither is Ines (this reaches its natural and unexpected conclusion with one of the film’s best scenes. The only hint I’m willing to share is, “Whitney Houston”). With no other choice, Ines just kind of goes along for the ride, and in the process comes to appreciate her father. It seems simple, perhaps trite, but is truly a powerful transition that invisibly occurs before our eyes. Only after do we get a sense of its gravity.
Throughout the film Ines is struggling with finding her purpose, something to make her happy. She even seems to hold happiness in contempt. We get the sense that she believed work would be the fulfillment she so desperately seeks, but now she’s taking the boss’ wife out to the mall to buy trinkets and suffering chauvinistic slights from superiors. Even though she’s good at her job, and is respected by her peers, is this really the kind of contentment she saw for herself? Winfried doesn’t think so. In a nice turn of events, Winfried isn’t trying to give Ines the life he envisioned for her, but is instead trying to show her the absurdity of doing something that doesn’t make you happy. What will really make Ines happy, she will still have to figure out for herself. In the end (and after a mental-breakdown of sorts involving an unorthodox birthday party and a Bulgarian animal totem said to scare away evil spirits), the two realize that life is passing you by no matter what you’re doing to occupy your time or what you’re doing to distract yourself, and that important moments usually aren’t revealed to be important until they’re gone… That’s a sad realization because ultimately neither character has the answer for how to be more present in their lives, to appreciate what’s right in front of them, but a pair of silly teeth could definitely help.