Film Review: Toni Erdmann (2016)

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People seem to have the funny idea that ‘foreign’ films are all stuffy, pretentious, boring – as if reading subtitles is the same thing as reading a Dostoevsky novel. And yet Toni Erdmann, a German production set in Romania, is so much more playful and less self-satisfied than any of the recent Oscars hopefuls I’ve seen.

Hacksaw Ridge, Jackie, Loving – none of these are bad films per se, but they are stifled from making creative leaps by their ‘Based on a True Story’ sense of worthiness. Worthiness wins awards for sure, because we like to see tales of injustice overcome, and hence feel good about ourselves. But think back over the great films of the last 100 years. How many of them were based on real-life events? Cinema is at its best when given free reign to wild flights of fancy, to a kind of divine madness that Toni Erdmann taps into beautifully.

The film follows a middle-aged prankster called Winfried Conradi (played by Peter Simonischek), as divinely mad as they come, as he goes to visit his daughter Ines (played by an awards-worthy Sandra Hüller) in Bucharest, as divinely mad as they don’t. She is working in the city as a ‘Business Consultant’, a title which really means that she is responsible for making thousands of people redundant in businesses that don’t have the spine to do it for themselves. Much like George Clooney in Up in the Air, she is required to switch off all of her emotional faculties in order to carry out this dirty work. Winfried asks at one pointed moment: ‘are you even human?’

Ever the joker, he spots the opportunity for a super prank to be carried out on this rather severe, career-driven daughter. He turns up at conferences and plush networking events to which she has been invited dressed as Toni Erdmann, a fictitious character who wears a scraggly wig and bulbous fake teeth. These protrude as vigorously from his mouth as he does in a party of bourgeois careerists. And his practical jokes will get more and more extreme.

Ines is not amused. Horrified, in fact. Yet she tries to keep up some semblance of social decorum, in order to impress some slimeball CEO who couldn’t give a damn about her. The professionalism with which she is required to act in the face of her father’s increasingly mad interventions shows us the role of businesswoman for exactly what it is: a performance. A more socially accepted one than her father’s Toni Erdmann, of course, but acting all the same.

The film’s main question is this: Which is more real? Playing a straight-faced businesswoman, or playing a raving, cheese-grating lunatic? It’s a version of the eternal battle between the ego and the id, the part of us that wants to succeed in a structured society vs. the part of us that wants to just let loose and be as wild and free as the animals we really are.

I won’t reveal which one triumphs in the end. But the journey there is long (too long) and the questions that it asks us of us will be difficult: the sadism of some of these pranks can be a little hard to stomach. Is it just because, like the daughter, we are too attached to some notion of ‘civilised’ society, and are offended by the intrusion of Toni Erdmann upon this? His feral, unstructured approach to life may well be a threat to us all. Or it may be an attempt to save us.

This is only director Maren Ade’s third feature film, and it’s a mildly extraordinary achievement. It caused a sensation in Cannes last year, and indeed holds up a lot better than the creaky Palme D’Or winning I, Daniel Blake. Many at the time compared it to Luis Buñuel, and I can certainly see the resemblance in its forthright challenge to bourgeois morality, but the truth is that it lacks a little of that master’s discipline. Buñuel made many of the same points more succinctly and with greater visual panache (see L’Age d’Or).

Still, Toni Erdmann has moments of soaring satire to make the belly laugh and the head ache. It should be seen, ideally on a big screen – the nudity, when it comes, should be right there blown up in your face. Everything about the film is grotesque, including its length, and how well you respond to it may well depend on how seriously you take yourself (sit this one out, Mr. Trump). Hopefully a little less after watching this.

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