Guest Review: TONI ERDMANN (2016)

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Written/Directed By: Maren Ade
Cast: Sandra Hüller, Peter Simonischek, Michael Wittenborn
Runtime: 2 hr 42 minutes

Parent-child conflict is a universal theme that can be spun into an infinite variety of narrative fabrics and colours. For mothers, it is often treated as an angst-ridden melodrama while for fathers it is usually a comedy. Each relationship mix has its own tropes and conventions but the German-Austrian film Toni Erdman (2016) is far from being a genre film. It is a stream of consciousness comedic study of the father-daughter bond that is quirky, insightful and strangely moving.

It is hard to imagine a more mismatched duo: Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek) is the epitome of the irritating reconstructed divorced hippie father. He lives alone, seemingly half a century behind everyone else, and loves his own ‘dad jokes’ and clownish antics. When his beloved dog dies, he wants to re-connect with his corporate consultant daughter Ines (Sandra Huller), but his surprise arrival in her city is inauspicious. She barely acknowledges his presence while continuing to do the things that high-potential upwardly mobile young women do to impress and advance their prospects.

From here forward, Winfried wants to save his daughter from a shallow heartless career where firing people, ruining lives, and being fluent in corporate-babble gains respect and reward. Like fathers around the world, he slips into and out of comedic personas to embarrass offspring into self-recognition. His chief alter-ego is Toni Erdmann, alternatively a life coach, Ambassador, or businessman, depending on who Ines introduces him to. In each role, he is able to prick her conscience into seeing herself as the sterile human she has become. In one scene, he tells her boss of a venture where you can hire a daughter to replace one who has no time for you, and in another, he disarms her by asking “are you even human?”. The longer he stays, the more cracks appear in her constructed persona and a softening light peeps through.

Within this linear plotline, there are several sub-stories that work as standalone comedic vignettes. Most contribute to the narrative, but some will leave viewers wondering what on earth just happened? The emotionless sexual encounter between Ines and a colleague is fertile ground for feminist analysis; the off-key singing of “The Greatest Love of All” by Ines is both poignant and ridiculous; and the naked lunch with a hairy guest monster can only be understood through a Beckett-like absurdist lens. At two hours and forty-two minutes, this film requires faith and patience. The pace is slow and another session in the editing suite would have helped without losing what is good and interesting. Fortunately, the acting performances are excellent, with an almost cameo-like deadpan-realism that is delivered convincingly by its relatively unknown stars.

One of the striking things about this film is how not-like-Hollywood it feels. There is nothing formulaic in the narrative nor are viewers pushed into an emotional corner. It is funny, sincere, definitely original, and too long. By using humour intelligently rather than to exploit the quick gag for a loud laugh, it offers warm insight into the universal father-daughter bond that is as unorthodox as it is endearing.

4Reels

cinemuseRichard Alaba, PhD
CineMuse Films
Member, Australian Film Critics Association
Sydney, Australia


Have you seen ‘Toni Erdmann’? Well, what did you think? 

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5 thoughts on “Guest Review: TONI ERDMANN (2016)

  1. Another amazing review, Richard. I was thinking about watching it or not, but now I’ll surely give it a try. It sounds fantastic!
    By the way, I’m sure you know that Hollywood is making a remake of Toni Erdmann with Kristen Wiig playing the daughter and Jack Nicholson playing the lead. What do you think of that? Personally, I’m pretty excited but that’s only for Jack Nicholson!

    1. I heard that it was happening and I am also one of Jack Nicholson’s greatest fans. But the stylistic biases of Hollywood vis a vis European productions makes me wary of a re-make (although hoping I’m proven wrong). The current version works because of the intelligent deadpan absurdism that is the standout feature of the acting performances. Nicholson is not known for understatement or restraint, and Hollywood goes for hype rather than subdued. So it will need a totally re-mix of ingredients in the hands of a skilful director for a re-make to work. Nice chatt’n Shivani.

  2. I agree it’s a bit long, but the emotional impact for the audience only comes from spending time with Toni and Ines, and I think we needed time to care. I liked hanging out with the main characters, who stayed with me. Very well-acted, Peter Simonischek and Sandra Hüller I had never seen before, and both are given the role of a life time. There’s probably a reason for the distance between Ines and Toni which we can interpret. There are amusing moments, but it’s just as much drama as comedy for me.

    1. I like your comment “we needed time to care”. Time is a much under-rated part of modern cinema; we rush through our lives so much, its good that some films slow us down enough to smell the roses.

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