Review: Toni Erdmann

The most universally acclaimed film at last year’s Cannes Festival, and winner of the FIPRESCI award for Best Film, Toni Erdmann marks a rare festival triumph for a comedy. For much of its excessive running time however, there’s a sense that it doesn’t warrant all the buzz surrounding it.

Maybe the fact that it’s a comedy is why it was so eagerly embraced among such heavy hitting festival competitors as Ken Loach, Nicolas Winding-Refn and the Dardenne Brothers. It also scored big last year at the European Film Awards, nabbing the highest number of nominations.

The story centres on Ines (Sandra Hüller), a career driven 30-something who doesn’t know the meaning of the word downtime. Now based in Bucharest, she’s back in her hometown in Germany to visit relatives, although she spends the entire time on her phone dealing with work issues.

Her relationship with her father, Winifried (Peter Simonischek), is particularly awkward. He’s a free-spirited prankster who despite having a compassion for others, isn’t so hot on such responsibilities as remembering people’s birthdays.

As a retired divorcee, Winifried clearly has a lot of time on his hands, and once his constant canine companion Willi dies, he’s at a loose end. With Ines having fled back to Romania, he decides to pay her a surprise visit and regain the connection he hasn’t had with her since she was a child.

Of course, his sudden appearance in her orderly world isn’t met with much enthusiasm from Ines. With deals to negotiate and important people to impress, the last thing she wants is her embarrassing dad cramping her style.

Things get much worse though when her dad starts popping up at social and business events under the guise of a Toni Erdmann. Replete with a set of horrendous dentures and a shabby grey mop of a wig, Erdmann is like a slightly toned down version of Les Patterson. Socially inept and highly persistent, he has a habit of turning up just when he’s not wanted. A mortified Ines doesn’t let on to anyone who he really is, but his mere presence threatens to undo all her good work.

While Ines may sound like the sympathetic character in this scenario, surprisingly it’s Winifried who wins our hearts. Well meaning and clearly lonely, Simonischek injects him with enough charm and humanity to bring us onto his side. Ines on the other hand, is such a cold fish that most of the time you actually want her tidy, sterile life to unravel. It soon becomes evident that she is just as lonely as him, but it’s much harder to feel any sympathy for her given her attitudes towards others.

Convention suggests that through the titular alter ego, Dad will teach his daughter the value of having a sense of humour and taking the time to enjoy life. Without getting into spoiler territory, it’s safe to say Ines’ epiphany manifests in a wholly unexpected and highly amusing way. The extended scene that brings about this moment of truth is a comic tour de force and partly compensates for the unnecessary amount of time it takes to get to this point.

It’s a rare comedy that warrants a 2.5+ hour duration, and Toni Erdmann is not that film. Far too much time is spent in Ines’ corporate world. While it’s important to know how soulless that world is and how she struggles to thrive in it, it’s not that entertaining for us, and most of the characters within this universe leave little impression – with the exception of the only other substantial female role Anca (Ingrid Bisu).

The film flies when Winifried/Toni does his thing. He is a wonderful comedic invention, apparently inspired by writer/director Maren Ade’s real father.

People don’t often use the words comedy and German cinema in the same sentence (although in truth German filmmakers have made plenty of good comedies over the years), but neither are they known for being overly sentimental. This is where Toni Erdmann truly succeeds. Ade has fashioned a story that ultimately is surprisingly touching, without tipping into mawkishness. The final scene is pitch perfect. It’s just a shame it takes so long to get to there.

✭✭✭1/2

Toni Erdmann is in national release from February 9

Richard Leathem @dickiegee

This review was first published in August 2016 when Toni Erdmann screened at the Melbourne Film Festival