Huller is sensational in the comedic, resonant and soulful ‘Toni Erdmann’
Writer/director: Maren Ade
Starring: Sandra Huller and Peter Simonischek
“Toni Erdmann” – “To a father growing old, nothing is dearer than a daughter.” – Euripides
Winfried (Peter Simonischek) is a piano teacher. With a rumpled wardrobe and a full mop of silver hair, this 60-something gives lessons in his home and plays the black and white keys for recitals at a local school. During one particular number, the children mark themselves in zombie makeup and dedicate a song to an outgoing administrator. The lyrics “here today, gone tomorrow” stand out during the piece, while Winfried – also caked in makeup – plays along.
This small, early scene says so much about Winfried’s life in two ways. First, not unlike playing the piano, he seemingly wishes to play all the time. Play practical jokes. Second, his beloved and only child - his daughter Ines (Sandra Huller) - works as a consultant, far away in Bucharest, Romania, while he lives a generally lonely existence in his German hometown.
“Gone tomorrow” is his unfortunate present.
Well, writer/director Maren Ade wraps an absolutely marvelous cinematic present about a trying relationship between a father and daughter. With a truly breezy runtime of 2 hours and 42 minutes, she unlocks deep, soulful themes, surprises with unexpected and hilarious comedic turns and offers - hands down - the best foreign language film that I have seen over the last 13 months (in other words, including 2016).
Winfried probably sees Ines once every 13 months, but most likely, these lapses of contact stretch even longer. While they seem worlds apart from a physical distance, Winfried and Ines could not be more emotionally different.
Ade lays this groundwork rather quickly. In addition, to Winfried’s disheveled appearance, she figuratively presents him like a defeated, aging comedian performing in near-empty theatres with stale material and lost, 30-year-old social references. Of course, Winfried is not a professional comedian, but he does turn to his unique brand of comedy - odd practical jokes - in his daily life, as a way to (attempt to) connect, with just about everyone.
He, however, almost constantly seems out of step.
For instance, he attends a lunch party at his ex-wife’s house to see Ines but shows up at the front door with zombie makeup (from the previously-mentioned school concert). He always carries a false set of “monster teeth” in his front pocket and pops them in for no apparent reason, other than to garner reactions and on occasion, falls into his alter-ego and tells stories about his fictitious life coaching business.
I’m certain that millions – if not billions - of daughters need a global support group to heal the mortification from their fathers’ amateur attempts at embarrassing humor, but Ines has to be the planet’s number one case study.
You see, while Winfried’s unique strain of arrested development embodies him, not an ounce of teenage frivolity passed along to her. Ines is a workaholic, and her job pays her exorbitant amounts of money to concoct business strategies to slash payrolls. It is a humorless reality, but as a skilled professional, she stays in beautiful high rise apartments with luxurious creature comforts. Ade smartly contrasts Ines’ plush living arrangements with her antiseptic workspace. In one scene, Ines delivers a critical client presentation in the most lifeless, bland conference room this side of Initech from “Office Space” (1999). We see that Ines carries heaps of responsibility for an important job, but her actual work and its surroundings are ultimately soulless.
On the other hand, Winfried’s unexpected trip to Bucharest tries to breathe soul into her world, but it is unwanted color. She certainly needs some sort of levity, but not from her dad, as only embarrassed kids perceive. Winfried badly misses her, but his behavior (mostly) ranges from a jokey pest to a ticking time bomb. Apparently, he can simply appear anywhere, much to the shock and disapproval of Ines. At the moment, her life is consumed with closing a big deal, and her dad’s repeated stumbles into her work ecosystem raise the tension during several key, mouth-agape moments. Many times, Winfried’s includes his infamous monster teeth (and more) during the most inopportune times when working his clumsy anti-appeal.
Throughout the story, Ade introduces sympathy towards each character. It primarily rests with Ines, but it volleys between the two. Neither Winfried or Ines are antagonists, but misunderstood protagonists, whose parent/child connection needs extensive calibration through measured doses of quality time.
Ade’s rich script devotes heaps of resonant quality time with Ines and Winfried, and both Huller and Simonischek rise to the challenge and embrace their characters’ toxic chemistry, but Ade offers enlightening insight into both as individuals, especially Ines. While Huller explores Ines’ complicated DNA, she delivers an absolutely sensational performance.
During the constant barrage of her dad’s gags, Ines holds herself together in public forums, but allows the movie audience to see her obvious frustration “beautifully” bubble to the surface with subtle looks, slightly uneasy gestures and swallows of anger. No, Ines is not simply an overachieving robot, despite Winfried’s perceptions. She wishes to stretch herself emotionally, but does not possess the tools to do so.
This becomes especially clear during three highly, highly memorable scenes: an intimate moment with her boyfriend, a party with her work colleagues and a particular musical number. In one place, she does not convey her vulnerability enough, expresses way too much of herself during another and oddly and wonderfully combines both during the third scene.
In addition to calibrating the connection to her dad, she needs to get in tune with herself. Embracing a work/life balance is the right recipe, and perhaps rest and reflection are the initial ingredients. Surprisingly, Ines does relax a bit when her dad is near, because she does allow herself to nap on a few occasions. Perhaps these quiet pauses are the beginning of her new journey to happiness. Perhaps not. Either way, Winfried will want to support her. He might carry his monster teeth in tow, but nothing is dearer to him than Ines and the constant hope of “here today, here tomorrow.”
Jeff – a member of the Phoenix Critics Circle – has penned film reviews since 2008 and graduated from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. Follow Jeff and the Phoenix Film Festival on Twitter @MitchFilmCritic and @PhoenixFilmFest, respectively.