It’s been seven years since Maren Ade’s last film, the superb Everyone Else, and it wouldn’t be surprising to learn that she has spent every single minute since that film’s release working on Toni Erdmann, so exquisitely is it crafted.
Toni Erdmann is a film with two central protagonists, a father (Peter Simonischek) and a daughter (Sandra Hüller), but there is a third character of sorts, a creation of the father Winfried. At various points throughout the film he appears as this character, named Toni Erdmann, in a ill-fitting wig and with buckteeth obscuring his own. All of which gives him a decidedly goofy and amusing look. Winfried likes playing practical jokes – the film opens with him trying to trick a postman into thinking he may be delivering a mail bomb – and part of this involves playing silly characters.
His daughter, Ines (Hüller), is overly serious, career-focused and not particularly keen on her dad’s antics. When he arrives in Bucharest, Romania on a spontaneous holiday to see her, she has no interest in engaging with him, and is somewhat desperate from him to leave. Despite this behaviour – Winfried jokes about how he’s hired a substitute daughter so he has one to actually talk to – Ines never comes across as mean. She has a distinctly unlikeable job too: a consultant at a firm that is currently in the process of advising a company on how they can outsource, by which they obviously mean fire, a very large number of staff in order to save money. And yet we don’t feel animosity towards Ines, just a deep empathetic sadness. She is succeeding in her career, but struggling in life, at best having a crisis of sorts, but at worst suffering from a deep depression that threatens to turn suicidal.
Toni Erdmann is not a bleak or dark film in any way though. It is emotional – heartbreakingly so in the film’s final hour – but it’s also so laugh out funny, and will have you doubled over on more than one occasion. Ade writes incredibly smart and acutely observed social comedy, pulling a lot of humour from social awkwardness, and she not only knows how to write it, but she knows how to shoot and edit it too, something that is sadly so lacking in a number of modern comedies.
A wonderful moment of startling humour – I’ll try not to ruin any of the film’s extraordinarily hilarious moments here – plays out largely due to the way in which Ade uses blocking and drawing the audiences’ eyes to one point in the frame to ensure the surprising comedic moment lands far heavier than it could have done otherwise. The jolt, and the fact that she hid the setup to the gag in plain sight, makes it all the funnier.
Ade shoots the film in a relatively un-showy manner, with liberal use of handheld camerawork to keep the film feeling intimate, embedded in with the father and daughter, but at no point does the filmmaking come across as loose or shambolic. You can tell from the way in which shots are carefully matched between edits, or the aforementioned way in which she sets up gags, that everything has been carefully conceived and executed.
This is all in service of a truly extraordinary script that is as near to perfect as could matter. The film is not just funny and emotional either, it’s positively transcendent, with an impromptu karaoke sequence late in the film bringing on howls of laughter, applause and floods of tears in the screening I attended. And when the inevitable emotional catharsis occurs late in the film, it is so utterly uplifting and life-affirming. You feel the emotional journey that you have been on with these characters in a way that few filmmakers achieve.
Both Simonischek and Hüller turn in stunning performances, and their fractured father/daughter relationship feels utterly believable and incredibly raw. Hüller deserves particular praise for dealing with the incredibly wide range of emotions that her character must go through convincingly in order for the film to succeed, often moving between hard to convey emotions within the space of seconds, as the film dynamically shifts within a scene at an almost breakneck pace.
Ade has created such an extraordinary character though for Hüller: a living, breathing, and extremely complex woman who has to deal with a lot of real life issues and concerns. A late scene in which Ines switches the focus of a party she is hosting begins with Ade skewering some of the absurd aspects of women’s fashion, but she then turns this scene into an emotionally cathartic sequence and one filled with enough laughs to have you struggling to breathe.
Toni Erdmann is so many things at once, and all of them are wonderful and perfectly crafted. A masterpiece that was easily worth the seven year wait.