Director: Maren Ade
Starring: Peter Simonischek, Sandra Hüller
Length: 2hr 42m
There are two types of people: people who find The Office funny, and people who cover their eyes and ears at Gervais’ first awkward grin as if he was Freddy Krueger. As ever, the comedy of embarrassment will divide people straight down the middle, and Toni Erdmann is almost three hours of it. It’s difficult to think of a film’s description that will appeal less to a wide audience than that of Toni Erdmann: it is a comedy in the German language, it was lauded at Cannes, and it clocks in at a considerable 162 minutes. I’ve heard and read of numerous people dismissing it out of hand before even seeing the trailer, let alone the film, and it’s unfortunate that those who dislike having to watch some of the film through their hands will miss out on the depth and breadth of what Maren Ade’s vision has to offer.
Winfried (Peter Simonischek) is the father and jester to Ines (Sandra Hüller), a long-suffering daughter and career-oriented businesswoman, and their rather distant relationship will be familiar to many. After the death of his dog, there is nothing to keep Winfried from visiting his daughter in Bucharest, where she lives and works. After a rather fractious visit, Winfried, who is well known for donning various disguises for comic effect, decides to hang around Bucharest as an alter ego, the eponymous and multi-talented Toni Erdmann. What follows is a mixture of eye-wateringly awkward comedy, touching moments of reconnection between a father and his adult daughter, and some totally surreal passages that need to be seen to be believed. This all takes place against the background of corporate politics that Ines is trying to navigate, and Toni Erdmann’s portrait of this corporate culture is as damning as its comedy is toe-curling.
The trailer I saw sells the film as an outright comedy, and that does it very few favours. It is certainly uproariously funny, but like all the best comedies it has significant heart and social commentary underneath, and this is what, for me, justifies its initially alarming running time. The central relationship between Winfried and Ines is so verisimilar, and Winfried’s motivations in becoming Toni Erdmann so difficult to determine, that what emerges is amusing, puzzling and worrying in equal measure. Hüller is fearless, allowing us to see every side of Ines, from the bullish professional she forces herself to be to the playful and vulnerable daughter that Winfried tries to bring out in her; Simonischek is inscrutable and mischievous, half embarrassing retiree and half Puck. Toni Erdmann’s central characters are truly three dimensional, and the amount of time we can spend with them is absolutely a blessing rather than a curse.
But you don’t have to take my word for it. Toni Erdmann is so good that rumours already abound about an English-language remake that may bring Jack Nicholson out of retirement. Clearly, if that does happen, the smart money is on a disaster on the scale of Spike Lee’s Oldboy. Beyond the obvious scepticism that accompanies any potential remake, we should take Toni Erdmann as an example (like Oldboy) of a film that inhabits a particular cultural space, without which it could easily lose its way. The English language would add nothing to Toni Erdmann, and if you are to see one foreign language film this year (which would be more than many people), I heartily recommend this one.