Nearly every season, usually around the Christmas holidays, Hollywood releases a film that ends in a reconciliation between an estranged daughter and her feckless, distant, or irascible father—a part that most often, it seems, is played by Robert DeNiro. But aside from surface similarities of plot, German director Maren Ade’s deadpan comic masterpiece Toni Erdmann—shortlisted for the foreign film Oscar—has nothing in common with those heartstring-tuggers, and it’s not only because Ade resists all the obvious and familiar ways in which a familial accord can be brokered. Here, the father and daughter, we see at once, could hardly be less alike: Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek) is a shambling bear of a man with an unruly mop of white hair and the air of an aging hippie; his inexpensive clothes look as if they’ve been washed once too often—or not enough. Whippet-thin, buttoned-up, and tightly wound, his daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller), an aspiring junior executive, favors black pant suits and blouses equally suitable for the corporate boardroom and the after-work drink.
In a revealing scene, Conradi is waiting to meet Ines in an extravagantly upscale Bucharest mall that, complete with an indoor ice-skating rink, is the capitalist equivalent of Ceaușescu’s palace. It’s the largest mall in Europe, Ines has informed him, in a country in which hardly anyone has any money. They have come there because Ines has been asked to escort on a shopping trip the wife of a CEO with whom her company (a consulting firm that advises corporations on how to “outsource” their labor forces, and in the process fire a significant number of their employees) hopes to do business.
When Ines at last appears with the CEO’s wife, who is flushed with the exhilaration of having spent so much money on luxury items, it again becomes clear—in her obvious willingness to put herself at the woman’s disposal—that Ines lives only for her work, that she is in thrall to her bosses and her “team,” and that her only desire is to succeed, at any cost, and perhaps win a hoped-for transfer to Shanghai. Her father gives her a searching look, then asks, “Are you really human?”
It’s rare that a film can have one of its characters pose a question that so baldly states its larger philosophical concerns—What does it mean to be human and how should a human being live?—without seeming overly obvious or sanctimonious. But Toni Erdmann gets away with it, in part because its characters are so complex and precisely drawn (we are fully persuaded that this father would ask his daughter that) and in part because the film is at once so understated, so broad, and so funny; in fact, humor and the ways in which humor expresses our humanity and allows us to get through the day is one of Toni Erdmann’s themes. It’s not Ines’s workaholism that her father is questioning so much as her inability to have fun, to relax and laugh. To Ines, life is a succession of PowerPoint presentations and performance reviews, while to her father, it’s a series of irresistible occasions for practical jokes.
When we first meet Winfried he’s playing one of the many pranks with which he will amuse himself throughout the film. He convinces an increasingly anxious delivery man who brings a package to his door that the parcel contains a live bomb and that he has just gotten out of jail for sending bombs through the mail; the ticking that can be heard, he explains unconvincingly, is only his blood pressure monitor. Soon after, we watch him at the school where he teaches music. He and his students, their faces painted to make them look like zombies, sing a merry song about death to celebrate the retirement of an elderly teacher. Still in zombie makeup, he visits his aged mother. When she asks why he looks like that, he replies that he’s working part-time at a nursing home, where they pay him extra for everyone he kills. Accustomed to her son’s peculiar sense of humor, the old woman barely responds. Soon after, Winfried attends a party that his ex-wife is throwing for Ines. A chilly, impatient, and undemonstrative young woman, she’s unamused when her father says that he’s hired a substitute daughter because she visits him so rarely.
Every performance in Toni Erdmann, particularly those of Simonischek and Hüller, is spectacular, and we register the actors’ skill at the many small moments that make the nearly three-hour-long film a continual pleasure to watch; the silences are nearly as telling as the dialogue. Soon after Winfried follows Ines to Bucharest, he waits for her, hiding behind a newspaper in the lobby of her office building. Surrounded by her co-workers, she spots him and pretends not to know he’s there; her glimmer of recognition is so fleeting and subtle that we may at first be unsure of whether she’s registered his presence. A little later, she asks him how long he’s planning to stay in Romania, and when he jokingly answers, “A month,” we watch her already taut features stiffen with sheer terror. “That was real fear,” he rapidly observes.
Finally, to his daughter’s relief, he leaves. But just as she’s telling the friends with whom she’s waiting to be seated at a restaurant how unbearable his visit was—the worst weekend of her life!—he reappears, as if from nowhere, wearing an irridescent jacket, a black fright wig, and ill-fitting fake teeth. His name, his tells Ines’s friends as she silently fumes, is Toni Erdmann, an alias and an alter ego he will maintain through much of the second half of the movie. He is, he claims, a professional life coach.
As it turns out, that’s precisely what he does, helping Ines to “work on her charisma,” forcing her to look more deeply at her life, chipping away at her brittle shell until she begins to display some elements of her father’s sense of humor and his predilection for doing and saying outrageous things with a perfectly straight face. Among the consequences is a horrific and hilarious sex scene involving a smarmy co-worker with whom Ines is having an affair and a tray of petit-fours that her lover has ordered up from room service. The ultimate expression of Ines’s reluctant transformation is a long sequence involving a party to which she invites her colleagues—it is so expertly played that, for a while, we are unable to tell if we are watching Ines having a nervous breakdown or staging a comedy that far outdoes her father’s most elaborate and outlandish hoaxes.
Nothing in Toni Edrmann is predictable, though, as we gradually realize, we have been prepared for everything that occurs by a minor detail or casual exchange that we recall from earlier in the film. There are recurrent motifs involving a wide range of subjects both large (the differences between generations, old age and death) and small: a cheese grater, spaghetti, toenails. Repeatedly, events transpire that may at first seem startling but which, we are soon persuaded, are wholly in keeping with the characters we have come to know.
Among the most surprising of these scenes occurs at an Easter-egg-dyeing party that Toni Erdmann, who at this point is claiming to be the German ambassador, crashes. (During his brief stay in Bucharest, the bewigged, grotesque-looking “life coach” has gotten closer to the local people than Ines has during her longer sojourn inside the protective bubble of corporate culture.) As he and Ines are saying goodbye and thanking their hosts, Toni offers to sing them a song, and when Ines balks, he hisses, “Be polite for once in your life.” Sitting at a cheap electric piano, Toni/Winfried plays the opening bars of a song and, after more hesitation, Ines belts out a creditable and progressively more impassioned version of Whitney Houston’s “Greatest Love of All”—a syrupy, hackneyed ballad about believing in children and the future—that manages to seem, under the circumstances, not only fresh and inspiring but deeply moving.
Politics saturates the film in much the same way in which it informs our daily lives; the realities of class, gender, power, and inequality are always there, but the characters are only intermittently conscious of them. At one point, Ines gazes out the window of the conference room where she’s just attended a meeting and sees a small house and a yard where an old woman and several children are living in dire poverty. During a visit to an oil field, where Ines has come to talk to an oil-company executive, her father attempts to prevent two workers who have committed an obvious safety violation from losing their jobs. Ines is horrified. The more workers the company lets go, the fewer she has to fire. Throughout the film, we are made aware of the sexism that Ines must confront on a daily basis, evident in the assumption that shopping with the CEO’s wife is part of her job description, and in the fact that the men she works with (or hopes to work with) are more comfortable discussing business even with the bizarre Toni Erdmann (or with any man) than they are talking to her.
In the film’s final scene, which takes place back in Germany, Winfried delivers a brief, rhapsodic speech about our inability to appreciate the beauty of the moment while we are experiencing it; not until the moment is long past can we comprehend how precious it was. His daughter responds with yet another small—and perfect—gesture, a sign that she has come to understand and accept what her father believes: that humor is our comfort and our consolation, enabling us not only to enjoy life but also to endure it.
Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann will be released on December 25.