Toni Erdmann is a German- Austrian film by Maren Ade, starring Sandra Huller and Peter Simionschek as a father and daughter with an estranged relationship. The theme conveyed through this relationship is arguably as old as cinema itself: seizing the day and discovering that the important things in life do not lie in material goods but in the moments you spend with your loved ones. With its dark German sense of humour and its unexpected setting, Toni Erdmann manages to give this old tale a modern twist that makes the film, even at 3 hours, a delight to watch.
The film is set in Romania and Germany, focusing on the life of business woman Ines Conradi (Sandra Huller) and the visit of her father, Winfried Conradi (Peter Simionschek) who goes under the alias Toni Erdmann. The awkwardness of their relationship is evident from their very first encounter. Divorced from Ines’ mother, Winfried has a distant relationship with his daughter, who works as a consultant abroad. Their first meeting is devoid of any affection or closeness. In fact, Winfried’s passion for fancy dress and his strange sense of humour makes him an outside in most social situations. This is a man who enjoys life in his own way without much regard for fitting into society. When he decides to pay his daughter a spontaneous visit, we discover that Ines is at the opposite side of the spectrum, trying too hard to fit in.
In that sense, Ines Conradi is the embodiment of a woman making progress in a male- dominated world. Her struggle is subtely presented yet powerfully conveyed by Huller’s amazing performance. She does expertly portrays the full extent of the character’s frailty. Although a powerful business woman, she seems to be constantly on the brink of caving in under the pressure. Indeed she has many reasons to, namely that she constantly struggles to be taken seriously at work and the company’s manager repeatedly dismisses her opinions. All sorts of challenges are thrown at her and she is expected to solve them with her womanly charm. She puts in the extra effort that her male counterparts do not, yet she still has to fight for authority and validation. Her romantic link with a co-worker is mechanical and thoroughly unromantic, amounting to potentially the most uncomfortable sex scene on screen. Her friendships are also connected to the business world and are devoid of all substance. This is the typical career-oriented woman in a capitalist world, who’s had to chose between personal happiness and professional success. She represents the film’s subtle take on feminism, not by being a feminist character, but by casting into sharp focus the all too relatable instances of sexism she faces in the work place.
During his visit, her father is fully confronted with the gaps in his daughter’s life and, under the alias Toni Erdmann, he tries to give her a life lesson in the must unorthodox way; by infiltrating her life under the guise of this eccentric German character. A mix of the most comedic and dramatic moments in the film stem from this situation. The father- daughter relationship is uniquely depicted as Ines and Winfred constantly try to prove each other wrong, only to emphasise the drama of their relationship: he is clearly an estranged father, who wasn’t really present in his daughter’s life and is now trying to make amends by teaching her a life lesson. On the other side, Ines seems unwilling to receive that lesson, but is ocassionaly overcome by feelings of tenderness towards her father. It is tragic and ironic that the only situations when they truly show emotions and are really themselves, is when they are wearing a mask.Their interaction faithfully portrays the complexities of the relationship between parents and children and, more generally, the dynamics between different generations.
Since we are talking about faithful protrayals, the film’s portrayal of Romania as a country and culture deserves a standing ovation. As a Romanian, I can state that this film portrays the country better than any Romanian film in the past 10 years. Toni Erdmann manages to steer clear of negative stereotypes and represents all aspects of life in Bucharest: from the very rich corporatists always obssesed with money and connections, to the lower working class who struggle due to gentrification. The movie presents both realities without stereotyping or taking sides. This might not mean much in the bigger picture, but it is testament to the film’s quality and to the effort that was put into every detail.
With so many hard-hitting themes, Toni Erdmann might seem like a lot to take in, but the film manages to present all of these subjects in such a light, organic manner, that it will make the almost 3 hours in the cinema seem like no time at all. It will make you laugh, it will make you think and, all in all, it is a good use of your free time. It is fully worthy of its Golden Globe nomaination and if it sets the tone for the Audi Dublin International Film Festival, then there’s a lot to look forward to!