Family relationships are complicated. Especially the one depicted in the Oscar-nominated German film, Toni Erdmann. On the surface, it seems like a mild comedy about a fun-loving, prankster dad who makes life impossible for his workaholic businesswoman daughter. But there’s a lot more going on beneath the surface in this offbeat meditation on family, aging, the passage of time, and the meaning of happiness.
This is the third movie directed by German producer and filmmaker Maren Ade, and her first to get wide distribution in the States. The story revolves around Winfried Conradi (the wonderful Peter Simonischek), a retired schoolteacher who confounds a deliveryman at the door by pretending to be twin brothers, likes to fool around with a set of fake buck teeth, and puts on zombie makeup to lead a chorus of kids at a school musical recital.
Amicably divorced from his ex-wife, Winfried attends a birthday party for their grown daughter, Ines (Sandra Huller). Briefly home from Bucharest, where the German corporation she works for is setting up business interests in Romania, Ines spends most of her time on the phone with her boss. Concerned that his daughter is trapped in a joyless life, Winfried “spontaneously” follows her back to Bucharest and shows up at her workplace.
His antics drive Ines nuts (he dons a mop-top wig and calls himself Toni Erdmann), but he makes some unexpected connections among her business contacts—passing himself off as a “consultant,” or a life coach. Except for the few moments she loses her cool and blows up at him, their time alone together is marked by long silences, his aching worry that she’s wasting her life butting up against her resentment at his interference.
Meanwhile, Ade sketches in a dubious portrait of the business world Ines is so desperate to succeed in. Her bosses exhibit a corporate mentality that’s moving in to gentrify and profit on a country whose people have already been through a lot. Shabby housing squats in the shadows of a fancy office building, day laborers are treated like slaves, and a luxury mall has been erected that few Romanians can afford to shop in.
When the movie’s viewpoint switches away from Winfried for a while to Ines, we begin to understand all the ways that her life is disappointing her, just as her father fears. She gets no satisfaction at work; as driven as she is, and no matter how much time and energy she puts into hatching her ideas and rehearsing her presentation for a big meeting, she’s still assigned to take the client’s wife shopping. The girlfriends she meets for drinks after work are business contacts.
Even her sex life, such as it is, is just another appointment on her schedule, with another colleague from work. She has a sort of belated epiphany when her partner casually jokes that their boss knows about them, and has instructed him not to do it with her “too hard, or she’ll lose her bite.” This has interesting repercussions throughout the rest of their encounter, as she reconsiders how willing she is to participate in their view of who she is.
Winfried counsels everyone not to lose their sense of humor, and Ade herself displays comic audacity. When an exasperated Ines has to open the door to her party guests in the nude, she improvises that it’s a “naked party,” shedding their workplace identities, along with their clothes, as a “team-building” exercise.
At two hours and 42 minutes, the movie feels way longer than it needs to be; boring business meetings in particular seem to go on forever. But what better way for director Ade to make us feel the crushing airlessness of the business world Ines inhabits? Or suggest the complexity of feeling, shared history, and passing time that connects father and daughter?
It is length, accumulation of detail, and, of course, humor, that allows Ade to craft her story with such emotional richness.
*** (out of four)
With Peter Simonischek and Sandra Huller. Written and directed by Maren Ade. A Sony Classics release. Rated R. 162 minutes. In German and Romanian with English subtitles; also some English.