Toni Erdmann

 

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In this extraordinary film the alter ego of an old man materialises in the life of his daughter at the most inopportune time.

 
Toni Erdmann

About face: Peter Simonischek as the most unexpected Toni Erdmann

 

Maren Ade’s third feature pulls off a number of tricks. Opening in a nondescript suburb of Germany, her film tells of a lonely divorcee in the autumnal years of his life. Without so much as a note of music or a caption or a whisper of exposition, Ade spins her tale in her own sweet time, creating a small, slightly musty world which, in spite of everything, feels entirely plausible. And yet as we follow the life of this odd, old man, the spectre of the bizarre hovers at the door throughout the film’s 162 minutes. And because the events are so thoroughly unpredictable, Ade manages to hold our rapt attention without ever betraying the credibility of her scenario.

 

Toni Erdmann, while usurping the title role, is actually an imaginary character, the bumbling alter ego of Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek). Conradi, who lives on his own with a dog on its last legs, is a perpetual prankster. He answers the door to the postman in two separate guises, pretending that Erdmann is his brother, who has just been released from prison. In short, Conradi is a joker, a buffoon, a free spirit. But we live in serious times and Conradi alienates more often than he engages and his worst enemy would appear to be his grown-up daughter, Ines (Sandra Hüller), a high-powered business consultant based in Bucharest. As she brokers multi-million deals with ruthless guile, the last thing she needs is the presence of Toni Erdmann, or even her father, who sees life as one big joke.

 

Maren Ade, who loosely based the character of Erdmann on her own father, seems to be saying that just when parents need their children the most, their children need – and want – them the least. Conradi is certainly an embarrassment and seems bent on wrecking his daughter’s career, but Ines has her own idiosyncrasies, which may or may not be inspired by the man who sired her.

 

In a seemingly straightforward narrative involving a major international deal, with all the attendant meetings, drink receptions and social legerdemain, Ade slips in the unexpected of the everyday, constantly knocking the viewer onto the back foot. Minutes prior to a crucial business meeting, Ines splatters her immaculate white shirt with blood from an infected toe. In another sequence, Ines reveals her sexual side, and in another her ability to belt out a torch song from the back catalogue of Whitney Houston. Conradi himself shifts from being a tragic figure to a monster to a charming clown, all the while trying to reconnect with the daughter he thinks he has lost. And because the film manages to retain a straight face and a constant naturalism, the viewer is at a loss whether to sob or to roar with laughter. In short, Ade pulls off an extraordinary balancing act, producing a surreal black comedy rooted in real life.

 

JAMES CAMERON-WILSON

 

Cast: Peter Simonischek, Sandra Hüller, Lucy Russell, Michael Wittenborn, Thomas Loibl, Trystan Pütter, Hadewych Minis.

 

Dir Maren Ade, Pro Maren Ade, Jonas Dornbach, Janine Jackowski and Michael Merkt, Screenplay Maren Ade, Ph Patrick Orth, Pro Des Silke Fischer, Ed Heike Parplies, Costumes Gitti Fuchs.

 

Komplizen Film/Coop99/KNM/Missing Link Films/SWR/WDR/Arte-Soda Pictures.

162 mins. Germany/Austria/Romania. 2016. Rel: 3 February 2017. Cert. 15.