“Nearly three-hour German comedy” is not a collection of words you’d expect to see used effusively to describe a new film. But Toni Erdmann, the newest feature from director Maren Ade, might be the most pleasantly surprising film of the year. Uproariously funny but with undercurrents of sadness, it’s a bittersweet ode to the importance of not taking yourself too seriously.
The titular character is actually the alter ego of one Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek), a divorced high school music teacher and dedicated prankster who keeps on hand a set of false teeth and a sloppy brown wig that looks more like roadkill than human hair. When he puts on the teeth and the wig and becomes Toni Erdmann, he’s an even looser cannon.
On a lark, Winfried decides to visit his daughter, Ines (Sandra Hüller), who works for a business consultancy in Romania. But when he arrives in Bucharest, he finds that Ines is now a stranger to him, even ignoring him when he shows up at her office. They behave more like a divorced couple than a father and daughter; their relationship is cordial, but strained. The two of them can barely hold a conversation; when they talk, there are more awkward silences than words.
A rare woman in a senior position at her firm, Ines wears the same conservative black suit every day as though trying to blend in with the men as much as possible. With her body in a perpetual “power pose,” it’s no surprise she engages a public-speaking instructor to advise her on body language. Ines has no qualms about shooting down her colleague and lover when he asks if she needs him for a major presentation—and she also doesn’t hesitate to scold him for interrupting her during a conversation with their boss (Thomas Loibl), a moment that made me want to stand up and applaud. When her boss prefaces a remark about her charm by noting it will probably offend the feminist in her, Ines shoots back, “I’m not a feminist, or I wouldn’t put up with men like you.”
Ines has a singular focus on success, and to some degree, she has achieved it. But Winfried can tell she isn’t happy, and his concern for her emotional well-being grows. The film makes it clear that the problem isn’t that Ines is ambitious, but that her ambition is her sole reason for living; she has “leaned in” so far that she’s about to fall off the edge. The only time Ines shows any joy is when she berates an apologetic spa employee for assigning her a bad masseuse. Her crisp negotiating earns her free drinks and sandwiches—but she leaves before she can enjoy them. Winfried, unable to understand how his daughter became this way, asks her, “Are you even human?”
After a few days of uncomfortable conversations and disagreements, Winfried leaves and returns as Toni Erdmann, eccentric life coach. Soon, his outlandish wig and grimacing overbite are waiting for Ines around every corner in Bucharest. Toni’s presence forces straitlaced, predictable Ines to think on her feet, parry her father’s punches, and return them in her own bizarre way. She becomes her father’s daughter, concocting absurd stories to explain Toni’s sudden presence in her life and engaging in bouts of zany spontaneity. Through Toni, Ines starts to discover that the small, silly, and even embarrassing moments in life hold just as much value as the big picture.
Toni Erdmann is the fastest and funniest 164 minute film you’ll ever see; Ade steers her story with a confident hand, utilizing loose, handheld camera techniques that make the audience feel as though they are intimately part of the action. Such action includes plenty of palpable, relatable discomfort: There’s no shortage of slapstick humor, and refreshingly desexualized nudity functions as a literal symbol of freedom in both body and spirit.
Though the film feels deeply personal, it doesn’t avoid engaging with societal issues like workplace sexism and the effects of globalization. Ines and her community of expats in Bucharest make decisions that affect Romanian workers without having any idea of what it is like to be one, and Ade juxtaposes shots of the bleaker parts of Bucharest with the glamorous hotels and bars where Ines and her colleagues hang out, places the average Romanian can’t even afford to go. But thanks to Hüller’s raw performance—utterly lacking in vanity or restraint—and her natural rapport with Simonischek, there’s no question that the father-daughter duo at the center of the film is what makes Toni Erdmann so improbably exhilarating.