There is no reason why Toni Erdmann should work. It’s a near three hour long comedy conducted in German and English and Romanian in which everyone’s primary concern appears to be conducting a business transition that would involve the outsourcing of hundreds of local jobs. Our lead, Winfried Conradi, is the father of the consultant responsible for being the public face of sweeping change and, feeling rebuffed by the lack of contact from his daughter, decides to invade her life under the guise of Toni Erdmann, an oafish character claiming to have a part in the business just far away enough from everyone he interacts with for them to not ask too many questions.
The film begins at Winfried’s door, a parcel arrives and he says it’s for his brother, he’ll just get him. Moments later he arrives back at the door with a pair of false teeth and sunglasses. The driver is not convinced, nor is he particularly amused. The glory of Peter Simonischek’s performance throughout the film is quite how bad he is at being Toni, a less confident actor paired a less confident director might have turned the figure into a comedian. Might have put on a voice, might have had him appear confident in any of his various deceptions. This ain’t a character who is good at what he’s trying to do, he’s awful, but just trying really really hard.
There’s something there, because he’s such a pack of unsalted raw peanuts that I couldn’t help but feel for him. Which is astonishing. He’s basically being a confidence trickster, lying and manipulating those around him for these nefarious purposes. I’ve experienced this once when I handed forty pounds out of a till to someone who insisted they’d received incorrect change. Got in a lot of trouble about that. Also he’s invading his daughter’s life for gratification of his own personal gain. And he’s insisting she’s the one who’s in the wrong, her dedication to her work, her ambition. Also, when she asks him to stop, he just doesn’t.
These are bad decisions, bad, bad choices, I’m not sure how the film survives them. Part of that comes from our co-lead; Sandra Hüller as Ines Conradi, the daughter. Cos this ain’t only Toni’s movie, sure we start with Simonischek’s character, but once it’s confident we understand his deal Hüller starts lifting the film’s weight. She works because she so actively defies a singular reading of her character, like, so easy would it be to excuse the plot by miring this character in their own suffering, and there are notes of that, sure, but so much else too, she aware and comfortable in her power, she driven and provides no excuse for her life.
In fact as time goes on, the film becomes pretty clear about what oppressing her. It’s not her choices. It’s the patriarchy, and it’s this sense of postmodern disassociation that her job comes to represent. (But let’s be clear here it’s mostly the patriarchy.) I’m not going to come out and say how it demonstrates these things, because the beauty of the film comes in this slow evolution of perspective. This unfolding understanding that both Winfried and the audience come to possess.
The key to crack open the rationale behind Toni is that it becomes quickly clear that in a patriarchal system, Winfried is incapable of relating to Ines without explicitly reducing her status. At the same time, look at how the film presents Ines’ work, its geographical displacement, the deliberate vagueness surrounding its precise nature, company hierarchies, the intertwining, confused nature of business and personal relationships. There is even the, not so subtle, suggestion that her job has no inherent meaning or purpose. This is not a choice made to diminish the character, or the effort she expends, but rather the nature of the employment she finds herself in.
Therefore Toni becomes this absurdist feminist critique of this postmodern society and, by accepting this character into her life, Ines gains a tool with which to challenge the oppressive structures in her life. Until, that is, we get another revelation that brings into question the purpose of the character. I’m gonna leave the nature of that one and the subsequent events out of here, they’re too special to get into in a review, film gives you two and a bit hours to get there, I can’t compete with that.
Director/Writer/Producer Maren Ade creates this piercingly human world. It’s always hard to talk about this sorta stuff when their craft is so unobtrusive to be just about invisible. For a film to feel like a place just comprises of so much work though, and it does it, all that work went in somewhere, tucked around the edges. These characters’ little nervous tics, the way they occupy these situations, the way so much thematic ground can be covered so articulately with just a few right decisions.
This joint is nothing but a collection of right decisions. Constantly new and inventive and so so funny. Didn’t really talk about how a few select scenes just had me weeping with laughter, jokes are too good to spoil, and they don’t quite translate from the screen to the page, there’s this late game one which just exploded all of my lungs and then the rest of my internal organs too. They’re planning an American remake with Jack Nicholson; I’d recommend watching Toni Erdmann, it’s out now, and would you really want to wait?