Toni Erdmann is not a real person; he’s the alterego of retired divorced schoolteacher Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek). When Winfried, a weird old hippy jokester, appears onscreen in a shaggy wig and bad fake teeth, he certainly gives the impression that those around him have to excuse his relatively harmless but tiresome—and often annoying—penchant for silliness. He is caretaker of his elderly mother, and death surrounds him. Perhaps that explains it.
Winfried’s daughter, Ines (Sandra Hüller), a young corporate sellout working on a project in Romania, drops by for a birthday. She’s on her phone most of the time, distracted by work. She’s so serious—and severe. Predictably, she doesn’t stick around long.
When his dog dies, Winfried flies to Bucharest and stalks Ines in the lobby of the office building where she works. She sees him and takes him to a reception, where she networks with Henneberg (Michael Wittenborn), an oil company executive she wants to make a deal with. The weekend is bizarre, filled with small talk, blank stares, and uncomfortable silence. Ines doesn’t bother to pretend she’s happy to see her father; in fact, it’s pretty clear she’s relieved to see him leave.
This is where Toni Erdmann gets interesting: Winfried doesn’t actually leave. Instead, he becomes “Toni Erdmann, life coach,” and sets out to reach Ines through her professional contacts. Funny thing: it actually works.
Writer/director Maren Ade has a solid grasp of strained relationships and embarrassing situations, and a sick sense of humor to boot. It’s a winning combination in Toni Erdmann, which has its share of quite a few awesomely cringeworthy moments. Your goofy dad upstaging you at a networking opportunity? Check. Naked birthday party—with coworkers? Check. An Easter party that includes an apoplectic performance of Whitney Houston’s “Greatest Love of All”? Check. A cum-soaked petit fours? Um, check.
For all its distance, Toni Erdmann turns out to be a surprisingly emotional film. It takes nearly three hours to get to it, but it ends on a whallop. It’s touching in a way I didn’t see coming. The final scene offers all anyone needs to see about this dysfunctional father/daughter relationship. And it’s beautiful.
With Ingrid Bisu, Lucy Russell, Thomas Loibl, Trystan Pütter, Hadewych Minis, Vlad Ivanov, Victoria Cocias
Production: Komplizen Film, coop99 filmproduktion, KNM, Missing Link Films, SWR/WDR/Arte
Distribution: NFP Marketing & Distribution (Germany), Soda Pictures (United Kingdom), Enfilade (Austria), Sony Pictures Classics (USA)
(Music Box) B-