Written by Zornitsa Staneva
This relatively low-profile German/Austrian co-production mostly filmed in present-day Bucharest (one of three Romanian set films in this year’s official competition) by German director Maren Ade is the first instance over the 2015-2016 screenings that I have attended that provoked sustained mid-film applause. Yet not much on paper predicted such warm reception – the unknown (to me) cast and director, the not exactly glamorous Romanian setting, the nearly three-hour duration, the ‘unsexy’ corporate daughter/hippy father relationship – and it was a pleasant surprise to be proven wrong. Toni Erdmann is a low-key, ostensibly unpretentious but marvelously executed idiosyncrasy bearing a certain affiliation with the formally realistic, thematically wacky genre of European cinema (“The Idiots” and “Dogtooth” spring to mind) – call it the Euro Kinky Wave, if you want.
Toni Erdmann is German director Maren Ade’s third feature and first Cannes participation. It stars Austrian veteran actor Peter Simonischek as Winfried Conradi, a pre-retirement music teacher in Aachen and Sandra Huller as his adult daughter Ines, a strategist for a multinational management consultancy posted on an outsourcing project in Romania. From the outset, there is something virtually unique in Ines’s character – cinema is not wont to depict plain-looking saggy-breasted women in comfortable, 9-to-5, non-creative, real-life, unexceptional jobs in out of the way countries. No, cinema likes dancers, politicians, the down and out, writers, false prophets, gangs, icons, revolutionaries, martyrs, lunatics, junkies, serial killers, lost souls, the downtrodden, the glamorous, the fighters, the legends … but no, cinema does not like homely, conscientious management consultants relatively satisfied with their lives, whose ambition is to simply work on another project (unless they come with something of an American Psycho bend). Ines, to my knowledge, is among the most “real” screen personas ever.
Winfried, on the other hand, is whole other ball game – a larger-than-life, aging hippie with an uncontrollable penchant for embarrassing practical jokes. This prankster extraordinaire is the antipodes of his corporate-mindset, tough-negotiator daughter Ines, and decides she needs an intervention to snap out of her run-of-the-mill existence. So one day he drops in at Ines’ Bucharest office building unannounced and thus begins a hilarious cringe-factor escalation that will take the audience through a karaoke sequence that is as uproarious as it is poignant, culminating in an impromptu naked brunch that has the makings of a cult classic. In the meantime, Winfried assumes the slapstick character of Toni Erdmann, a shaggy wig wearing, false teeth adorned giant who goes around Bucharest variously claiming to be the German ambassador, a life coach, or a well-connected businessman, all in the hope of instilling a change in his excessively down-to-earth orderly daughter.
Although at times unnecessarily long-winded (the final funeral sequence back in Germany was extraneous to my mind), “Toni Erdmann” possesses alongside its caustic look on middle-class Europe, a freshness and novelty, held together by impeccable directing and magnificent central performances, with Sandra Huller a strong contender for the best actress prize.