Given the times in which we live, making jokes about mail bombs to a postman could be seen as rather a poor show. Equally, telling your elderly mother you’ve taken on a new job moonlighting at an old people’s home, scaring residents to death (literally) for €50 a pop is borderline immoral. But such is the perceptive, compassionate, humanist skill and darkly comedic wit of German writer-director Maren Ade that her latest film, Toni Erdmann, is a deliciously morbid, frequently awkward, raucously funny critique of modern life’s senseless bullshit and a surprisingly affecting look at the love between a father and his daughter.
The apple does sometimes fall a fair distance from the tree and this could not be more true for Winfried (Peter Simonischek) and Ines (Sandra Hüller). The former, an aging jester who is never to be found without a ridiculous pair of false teeth, a wig and healthy supply of make-up, moves at a different pace to those around him and cuts a dishevelled, tragicomic figure. His daughter, a literal and figurative world apart, is orderly, career-driven and not given to cracking even the slightest suggestion of a smile, except when feigning obsequious interest in the vacuous lives of her high-powered corporate entourage.
She’s serving time working for an oil conglomerate’s Bucharest office, desiring a move to Shanghai. Trodden on by chauvinistic bosses and stepped over for the promotion she desires at work, Ines is alienated by the expectation and admiration of her parents at home, faking important phone calls to escape the restrictions of familial normality and to shut out her own crushing loneliness. The pair have more in common that Ines would like to admit and the death of a long-time companion leaves Winfried free to doorstep his offspring, just ahead of a crucial deal she absolutely must close. Embarrassing one’s children is almost a requirement of fatherhood but though at times hugely uncomfortable for an audience, Winfried’s tomfoolery does have a sincere and heartfelt motive.
Adopting the eponymous pseudonym, he poses as a fictional life coach whose purpose it is to teach Ines what is, and significantly what is not, important in life’s grand scheme. Toni Erdmann, like its rather rotund leading man has a bit of a thick middle section, but two hours forty minutes in the company of Winfried is time extremely well spent. A painfully awkward series of scenes in which more or less the same message of “Why do you spend your time with these awful people?” is conveyed means a large central portion does drag to some degree but there is a subtlety to Ade’s distinction of high-flying big business and impoverished common folk that is deeply profound and Ines’ rigidity is slowly softened at the edges to something like the pluralistic nature of her father.
Cinematographer Patrick Orth does sterling work with long takes, a wandering camera and close-ups that lend a perfectly pitched naturalism to this warts and all, and at times much more, depiction of a life and relationship fraying at the seams. Chalk and cheese they may be but the two performances from Simonischek and Hüller are each as tremendous as the other and when push comes to shove it’s discovering that ‘learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all.’ Toni Erdmann teaches us all to just say “Fuck it” and go with the flow. For that reason alone, among many more, it is an absolute triumph.
Matthew Anderson | @behind_theseens