Toni Erdmann is the third feature from writer/director Maren Ade and with this candid character piece, she has created one of the most bizarre, funny and poignant films you’re likely to see this year. On the surface, the story is a simple exploration into an estrange father/daughter relationship but the narrative goes a lot deeper into the psychological well-being of our two leads because it discusses the pressure we put on ourselves in life, in all kinds of situations. The slightly mad soul of Toni Erdmann, both the character you meet and the film, is never hidden and while it takes a little time to immerse, once you’re there it’s an experience that stays with you, eccentricity and all.
Peter Simonischek plays Winfried, a father who doesn’t see much of his hard-working daughter Ines (the truly excellent Sandra Huller) who works away. After his dog dies, Winfried decides to surprise her by visiting in Bucharest but Ines is very much focused on her job and doesn’t really understand why he has come to see her, especially as she’s working on an important project. What’s worse for Ines is that Winfried is the complete opposite of her and while she’s serious, he likes to play pranks and it’s obvious they’re not connecting. Despite this, Winfried isn’t giving up easily and so invents a whole new persona in the shape of Toni Erdmann, an alter-ego claiming to be her life coach and thus setting up a whole new test for Ines to battle.
There’s no doubting the surreal side of Ade’s film but she captures it intriguingly and it’s never bizarre to the point of uncomfortable. While Ines is fighting for a career she believes she needs and putting every ounce of her life into it (even her friends tell her she works too much), Winifred has lost his long-term pal and dog, Willi, and is trying to be noticed. This isn’t in an infuriating way because while his antics are off-the-wall, it’s clear he just wants to bond with his daughter and tries anything to coax her out of the bubble. Almost as if he wants them to return to a time when they were carefree and without the serious nature of adult life.
Toni Erdmann is a thought-provoking look at the masks that we choose to wear. The underside of everything Toni, beyond the surreal, is a deep truth about what we think we should do and what we want to do in our life. There are many levels of emotion and contemplation because both leads may also be suffering on the edge of personal depression. While Winfried’s loneliness is from the contemplation of getting old and losing things he loves, Ines is pushing herself to places where she can’t cope with doesn’t know how to step-back for the bigger picture.
As the narrative progresses there does come a time when she starts to let him into her life and the turning point is surely an unexpectedly moving rendition of Whitney Houston’s ‘Greatest Love of All’ by the pair at a party. While Winfried feels he’s gone too far, it could be the push that Ines needs to break out of the her self-created boundaries. The result of these moments is an absolute standout twist in self-realisation when she’s getting ready for her birthday party. As she tries to change her dress quickly, she gets stuck and ends up answering the door naked. Instead of covering up though, she goes with it and realises something important. It appears she may have gone crazy but there’s an unanticipated liberation to her actions, as if she’s in control for the first time… in a long time.
With absolutely outstanding performances from Peter Simonischek and Sandra Hüller throughout, this bizarre and crazy journey gives you both satisfaction and a definite conclusion; there’s nothing quite like Toni Erdmann.
Toni Erdmann is out to own on Blu-ray, DVD and on digital on Monday 29 May. Order: http://amzn.to/2qoVBgc
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My review was originally published on The Hollywood News