It’s hard to tell you how to go into “Toni Erdmann” as it works as both a comedy and a drama. Some moments are truly hysterical while others are deeply moving as German filmmaker Maren Ade draws us into a story which takes us in completely unexpected directions. These days, only a foreign film can get away with what “Toni Erdmann” does here as it balances out both its hilarious and moving scenes for a nearly 3-hour running time. Yes, it’s that long, but don’t let this and subtitles give you a reason not to sit through it because you will be missing out.
We meet Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek), a music teacher who thrives on playing pranks and practical jokes on unsuspecting victims with tremendous glee. Winifred is eager to reconnect with his daughter, Ines (Sandra Hüller), who is currently working in Bucharest, Romania as a business consultant in the oil industry. Ines is hopelessly addicted to her phone, as many of us are from one nation to the next, and she barely has any time at all to spend with her family as she is constantly called away to work. Following a sudden death, Winfried impulsively travels to Romania to spend time with Ines, but his unexpected visit cannot compete with her seemingly ambitious climb up the corporate ladder. Winfried at one point asks Ines what she enjoys most out of life, and she finds she cannot really answer the question as the term enjoyment is impossible for her to honestly define. These days, with everyone struggling to make a living, it’s very hard not to relate to how she feels.
After feeling quite alienated, Winfried decides to leave Romania and let Ines go about her hectic life. A few days later, however, Winfried reappears as Toni Erdmann, his alter-ego who presents himself as a life coach and consultant to Ines and her friends, and it doesn’t take long for him to draw a crowd with his effortless charisma. Ines is at first horrified by what her father has pulled off as she feels her career might be put in jeopardy as a result, but she eventually finds herself playing along as it gives her life a levity which constantly eludes it.
Watching “Toni Erdmann,” I kept thinking how a Hollywood studio would try to dumb down the material and force the director to cut the movie down to 90 minutes so they could maximize the number of screenings which can be shown in a day. I imagine producers were trying to do the same to Ade, but she apparently said deleting scenes would have hurt the movie’s pacing. Keep in mind, she spent over a year editing the movie and even gave birth to her second child in the process, so you cannot say she didn’t put a lot of thought into what she was doing here. The end result is a final cut which doesn’t have a single wasted shot in it as we watch Winfried and Ines struggle with this crazy thing called life.
Both Simonischek and Hüller are exemplary in portraying characters who could have been played far too broadly in any other movie, and the actors fully invest in the emotional natures of Winfried/Toni and Ines to where we are completely caught up in what’s going on in their minds. Just when you think each actor has given their best moment onscreen here, they come up with another one which has you in awe as well as in hysterics in regards to what they succeed in pulling off.
Winfried could have been a completely obnoxious and annoying father like many are in movies these days, but Simonischek makes him a wonderful presence even when Winfried, in his alter-ego of Toni, threatens to overstay his welcome. When he reveals who he really is to another person and why he is putting on such a disguise, it is a wonderfully moving moment as he is not greeted with disdain but instead with understanding and empathy. I imagine most parents are desperate to keep a strong connection with their children after they move away from home, so it shouldn’t be a big surprise when some resort to desperate measures.
Hüller gives us a character ever so serious in advancing her career in a male-dominated business, but she’s also not afraid of showing the bruises in Ines’ armor which come up when her world becomes too much to deal with emotionally. She also brilliantly takes her character in directions you couldn’t possibly anticipate, and this results in a musical scene and a birthday party, both of which need to be seen to be believed. She fearlessly dives into those moments with sheer enthusiasm as she soon finds herself battling against a lifestyle which has become far too suffocating to deal with.
“Toni Erdmann” is in many ways a comedy, but the comedy doesn’t just come out of its hysterical moments. It also comes out of the painful and awkward ones as humor at times becomes the only way to deal with the emotional hurdles life constantly throws in our direction. There is a seriousness to the subject matter as well as life and death are dealt with in equal measure. Taking this into account, it’s best to go in with an open mind as expectations will threaten your cinematic experience rather than inform it. What you can expect are a number of surprises you could never have expected, if that makes any sense.
Every once in a while, we need a movie which reminds us of the importance of living in the here and now as life becomes far too hectic for us to realize it. “Toni Erdmann” never tries to shameless manipulate its audience into feeling anything as we come to fully sympathize with Winfried and Ines to where we do see the importance of stopping to smell the flowers more often. Winfried’s last scene with Ines drives this point through as they come to realize how quickly time passes everyone by to where it is very hard to slow down for just a second. Please don’t try to convince me you don’t relate to this in the slightest.
I am still thinking about that last scene long after the movie ended, and of how Hollywood would never have let Ade get away with a nearly 3-hour running time. I’m convinced they would rather rush to get to the “live in the moment” scene in a mere 90 minutes because more screenings in a day means more money. Sometimes it is worth it to take the time to tell a really good story.