Below the surface of its brilliantly timed screwball humor, the German Oscar contender Toni Erdmann holds a tender story of staying true to family. With her third feature film, German writer-director Maren Ade shows incredible growth since her previous film, the dour but profound Everyone Else (2009). This time, Ade demonstrates a sense of whimsy that many would have hardly expected from her, as she raises farce to another level. Oftentimes, dramas this rich in funny stuff use jokes to relax tension. However, in Toni Erdmann, humor becomes lifeblood.
The comedy is as awkward and desperate as it needs to be for a film grounded in the complex reality of familial relationships were connections have become untethered. As in her previous films, Ade maintains a natural intimacy with the actors via loose, handheld camera work, befitting of the film’s awkward humor and sometimes antagonistic relationships. Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek) has recently retired from his job as a middle school music teacher. Finding himself with newfound free time, not to mention an innate desire to continue teaching in his unorthodox manner, he decides to face his ultimate challenge: his career-oriented adult daughter, Ines Conradi (Sandra Hüller). He invites himself along on a business trip with Ines, who prefers to fake receiving cell phone calls rather than talking with her parents. While her job is to make a multinational company more efficient by cutting jobs, Winfried is on a subversive mission to save her from becoming an icy corporate cog in the machine of capitalism. Along for the trip are a set of false teeth dad dons to transform into his buffoonish alter ego, Toni Erdmann. The name Toni Erdmann is a fiction among these characters, yet the power in this fiction has the power to unlock something very real in their relationship.
Ade likes to use long scenes, and the film is long, but the way the filmmaker gradually amps up drama using tension and humor is a joy to behold. They include a scene featuring an enthusiastic rendition of “The Greatest Love of All” and an on-the-fly decision to go naked during a house party for the sake of team building. Tone and character are both exquisitely established with a single shot at the start of the film featuring the delivery of a package to Winfried’s house. With the camera staying outdoors for the length of the scene, fixed on the profile of a delivery man who rings a doorbell and stands, waiting for someone to open the door, time is immediately established as a device to draw the viewer in. The camera lingers long enough to make the audience wonder if the delivery man will just ring the bell again. Then Winfried finally opens the door. He refuses to sign for the package, however, as he claims it’s for his brother. There’s a sense of personal urgency in the delivery man, who has no interest in hearing stories, yet Winfried gives him a doozy. The punchline is so well timed, it deserves not to be spoiled. This moment is a perfect establishment of toying with pace while lifting the film’s style to re-balance audience expectations of tempo in cinema and comedy.
There’s a natural timing going on in the joke, which is taken to other heights, as the scene plays on. Of course, the joke uses humor to defuse tension, something Winfried has made a career out of as a teacher. However, that doesn’t always smoothly translate in life, as we will come to learn from his relationship with his daughter, during awkward cocktail parties, a visit to a construction site in Romania and a finale featuring a pair of scenes that take the film to new cathartic heights. What hooks you in this film is Winfried’s often desperate reaches for silly humor as saving grace. It’s all often very funny from the outside, but under the weight of the father-daughter relationship, it becomes something essential and builds to an incredibly moving yet hilarious finale that speaks to the pleasures that can ultimately be found in humanity’s inconsistencies.
* * *
Programming Note: On Saturday evening, Feb. 11, join Independent Ethos’ co-founder/creative director and Vice Chair of the Florida Film Critics Circle Hans Morgenstern for a special screening of Toni Erdmann at the Miami-Dade College Tower Theater where he will host an exclusive group for a meeting with the Miami Film Festival’s director of programming, Jaie Laplante (the festival is a month away). We will meet on the second floor of the cinema at 4:45 p.m. for check-in. Then, Jaie will discuss his role as programmer with MFF. We will also get a tour of the projection booth before Hans introduces the film to the group and watches it with the group at 5:30 p.m. Hans will also be available to discuss the movie afterward. This is part of our program “Independent Ethos Insider’s Tour of the Movies” co-sponsored by The Knight Foundation, Continental Film & Digital Labs and Magna-Tech. You can purchase tickets via this link:
Click the 5:30 p.m. button (start time of film) and look for the “Ethos Insiders” event priced at $16.50. You also get a free drink and a small popcorn. Tickets are already selling and seating is very limited so do buy them ASAP.
Toni Erdmann runs 162 minutes, is in German, English and Romanian with English subtitles and is rated R. It opens in our South Florida area at the Miami-Dade College Tower Theater on Feb. 3 and at the Miami Beach Cinematheque on Feb. 17. For theaters playing the film in other parts of the U.S., visit this link. We first caught this movie during its Florida premiere at Miami Film Festival’s Gems.