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Review: ‘Toni Erdmann’ wows with poignant absurdism

The closest I can come to a description of Toni Erdmann’s tone is to ask that you imagine a nearly three hour absurdist episode of The Office, where the cringe worthy moments have been dialed up to eleven but the catharsis of a laugh out loud punchline never quite hits.

Germany’s finalist for best foreign film Academy Awards, Erdmann has been billed by some critics as a comedy, and there are certainly many funny moments, but they arrive in a film that’s too emotionally charged and nuanced to fit into such a prescriptive package.  Instead, what German director Maren Ade has achieved with Erdmann is a mournful and meditative yet mesmerizing exploration of ambition, neoliberal “modernization”, and the strange and awkward beauty of a father-daughter relationship

Erdmann’s story concerns Ines (Sandra Hüller), a straight laced business consultant, and her father Winfried (Peter Simonischek), a divorced music teacher nearing retirement. Winfried is grizzled and mischievous, an “out there” personality given to fits of improvisational humor.

In the film’s first scene, a mailman is greeted at the door by Winfried, who shouts into the house to his brother to sign for his package. Winfried leaves, only to return as his “brother,” Toni, decked out in sunglasses, false teeth and half open bathrobe.

After seeing his distant daughter at a family gathering, Winfried decides to follow her to Bucharest, Romania, showing up out of the blue at her office. An awkward several days follows, where Winfried is exposed to the cutthroat nature of Ines’s job and he repeatedly embarreses her in front of her coworkers. Following the uncomfortable exchange of a cheese grater birthday present, Winfried pretends to leave but reemerge’s the next day at Ines’s office as “Toni.” Toni has gained a black wig and a Gordon Gekkoesque contrasting collar shirt, a subtle dig at the heartless capitalism that drives Ines’s company.

In a more conventional film, Toni and Ines would play easily categorizable types, the goofy, eccentric father and the icy, dead-inside workaholic daughter. And they do, to some extent, but the film’s lengthy runtime and absurdist-realist (no contradiction, I swear) screenplay give both actors the requisite tools for incredible depth of character.

Behind Toni’s gags and false teeth hides a deep reservoir of melancholy, as though he fell asleep after the 60’s and awoke this year to find the ambitions of that lengthy decade squashed. He is a painfully awkward father, and seems to revel in that distinction, but as the movie progresses it becomes endearingly clear that he’s living his life for his daughter, and no one else.

Ines tolerates her father more than would be expected — they are polar opposites in disposition and ambition but, as critic Susan Wloszczyna points out, “she is definitely her father’s daughter.” Both characters have a penchant for performance — Ines’ plays an excellent straight man to her dad’s antics, never revealing his identity even as his presence threatens to derail her career. At her job too, we’re shown the many masks she successfully wears, rehearsing speeches, anticipating in each the deference she’ll have to show her vapid, mildly misogynistic associates. She’s fairly ruthless, lacking compassion for everyone from her assistant to the hordes of workers she’ll need to lay off to advance, but there’s a fragile humanity tucked beneath the surface that keeps the audience invested in her story.

Erdmann moves in refreshingly unpredictable patterns that feel true to life despite each scenes bold surreal flavor. This is in part due to the roving camerawork of cinematographer Patrick Orth, whose jumpy handheld shots have a glossy documentary feel. The film’s true to life feeling is also enhanced by an absent soundtrack which I didn’t notice until my second viewing, and the rare experience of an entirely unknown (to American eyes) cast.  

The movie features at least two standout scenes, one of which is probably the most raw, human depiction of nudity I’ve ever seen on film. The second is an equally naturalistic and moving rendition of a Whitney Houston song which far surpasses Emma Stone’s La La Land audition singing in terms of pathos and memorability.

Erdmann ends with an image of emotional ambiguity that fits well with its rambling, anarchic storyline: a life-affirming (but not cheesy) speech followed by a set of gag teeth, worn for the first time and then pocketed. Like those teeth, the film doesn’t always fit comfortably, refusing to settle into established genre patterns, but in doing so it makes its welcome presence felt. Erdmann requires a certain level of patience, but it’s well worth a watch it for its depth, complexity, and understated confidence. Well that, and the large fuzzy creature that helps to bring it all home, delivering the hug you hadn’t realized you were craving all film.

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