False Faces for a Global Economy
BY STEVE ERICKSON | Maren Ade’s “Toni Erdmann” is cinema, the real thing. A 162-minute German comedy might sound like a barrel of oxymorons to some spectators. However, Ade brings both visual and verbal wit to bear on a number of essentially serious subjects: the business community, what richer countries are doing to poorer ones, the legacy of the counterculture, father/ daughter relationships.
Although made with German money and a largely German cast, most of “Toni Erdmann” is set in Bucharest. While it offers a few glimpses of Romanian poverty, particularly in a cutting, un-subtitled scene where a character searches for a toilet in the countryside, it doesn’t wallow in grime. In fact, its look, which focuses on pristine, glossy white settings, conveys a lot about what it means to be an upper middle class European right now. Dirt has been gentrified away, but it obviously exists; in fact, it may be making a comeback in a few years. The future of its prosperous characters probably lies in Asia.
One question raised by “Toni Erdmann” is how Ines Conradi (Sandra Hüller) and Germans like her wound up in Bucharest in the first place. She praises the generation of Romanians who grew up alongside her for their “international” values, but a Romanian colleague suggests that this isn’t always such a positive quality. Her job will lead to Romanians losing theirs. Ines has just enough of a conscience to be bothered by this, but not enough to do anything about it for most of the film. As Ade describes Ines in her film’s press kit, she is “the daughter who chose a life very far removed from the ideals her father instilled in her as a child when she decided to go into a conservative, performance-oriented field that embodies the very values he used to despise.”
Winfried (Peter Simonischek) is a music teacher in Germany. He’s a prankster; in the film’s opening scene, he tries to convince the mailman that the package he’s carrying is either a bomb or outrageous pornography. His work seems to be drying up, and his mother is dying. His daughter Ines works as a successful consultant in Bucharest. Disguised as “Toni Erdmann,” he shows up there unannounced, claiming to be a consultant as well and actually gets a freelance job from a bigwig in the company Ines works for. Disappointed by the way she fits so complacently into the business world, he tries to shake her life up, but she just views him as an aging hippie with no ambition. Still, their paths continue to cross during the month he spends in Bucharest.
The film’s title comes from the late comic Andy Kaufman’s boorish alter ego Tony Clifton, who drank, smoke, and womanized his way to total obnoxiousness. Winfried’s love for disguises and makeup is signaled from the very early scenes, where he dons corpsepaint to play piano at a children’s party. It’s still a surprise when he approaches Ines and two of her friends as they’re waiting for a table wearing an ugly – and obvious – long brown wig and uglier false teeth. Later in the film, he adopts yet another disguise: a seven-foot-tall Yeti suit.
These doublings are matched by the changes in Ines’ personality depending on whom she’s around. With her boss, she’s incredibly uptight, to the point of being overtly hostile; she tells him, “I’m not a feminist or I wouldn’t tolerate you.” With her father, she seems like the voice of reason. Hüller does a terrific job of calibrating the precise amount of tension in her face needed for these scenes. However, when she’s with her co-worker boyfriend, with whom she plays odd sexual games, or other friends, she relaxes and shows a playful side that reveals that she is her father’s daughter after all. She may not put on any disguises, but she shifts personae depending which one will benefit her. “Toni Erdmann” suggests that one has to be capable of such shape-shifting in order to succeed in today’s business world. The antics of Winfried are a mere parody of that.
One hundred sixty-two minutes of German yuppies dealing with their eccentric parents may sound like a slog, but the first time I looked at my watch, 100 minutes had passed. For all its thematic virtues, “Toni Erdmann” is also one of the year’s most entertaining films. Many films that run half its length are much harder to sit through. On the festival circuit, it’s also reached a surprisingly wide consensus about its quality. Sony Pictures Classics has positioned it as its holiday subtitled crossover hit for winter 2016/ 2017. I hope its faith in the film’s ability to attract American spectators is warranted.
TONI ERDMANN | Directed by Maren Ade | Sony Pictures Classics | In English and German with English subtitles | Opens Dec. 25 | Lincoln Plaza Cinema, 1886 Broadway at W. 62nd St. ; lincolnplazacinema.com | Film Forum, 209 W. Houston St.: filmforum.org