I don’t always have time either: Toni Erdmann

Toni Erdmann (2016)

With two exceptional central performances, this profoundly nuanced character study shouldn’t have been so overlooked at the Festival of Cannes

Toni Erdmann


Writ­ten and di­rect­ed by Maren Ade. Star­ring Pe­ter Si­monis­chek, San­dra Hüller, Lucy Rus­sell, Michael Wit­ten­born, Thomas Loibl, Trys­tan Püt­ter, Hadewych Min­is, In­grid Bisu, Vlad Ivanov and Vic­to­ria Co­cias.

Are you re­al­ly hu­man?” the dis­mayed char­ac­ter Win­fried Con­ra­di played by Pe­ter Si­monis­chek asks his worka­holic daugh­ter Ines (San­dra Hüller) af­ter she ditch­es him for an en­tire day to go shop­ping with a client’s wife. She works as an out­sourc­ing con­sul­tant in Bucharest, Ro­ma­nia, and he trav­els there all the way from Ger­many in a des­per­ate at­tempt to rec­on­cile with her. It is a line that car­ries a uni­verse of mean­ing in each word, much like the film it­self. Toni Erd­mann, writ­ten and di­rect­ed by Maren Ade (The For­est for the Trees; Every­one Else), is ac­tu­al­ly a work of pro­found sen­si­bil­i­ty in which every shot (hell, every line!) seems to of­fer a thou­sand nu­ances that I hon­est­ly don’t re­mem­ber hav­ing seen in a long time.

Con­sid­er, for in­stance, an­oth­er scene. When Ines learns that her father’s dog died, she asks him why he didn’t tell her. His an­swer is like a slap to the face: “I don’t al­ways have time ei­ther.” There is so much in this sin­gle sen­tence and so many lay­ers of re­sent­ment (and hope) in his voice that I had to pause for a mo­ment to think about all I had just heard. In oth­er words, this is the rea­son why I watch films. Yet, the best scene in Toni Erd­mann is per­haps an­oth­er, a busi­ness meet­ing in which Ines’ client sub­tly shows how ap­pre­cia­tive he is of her work by call­ing her a “spe­cial­ist in shop­ping.” As Win­fried in­tro­duces him­self to said client as be­ing “only the fa­ther,” he fol­lows it with a se­ries of awk­ward jokes that in­clude hav­ing a “sub­sti­tute daugh­ter.”

You see, Win­fried loves play­ing pranks, and his ec­cen­tric, dark hu­mor is def­i­nite­ly not everyone’s cup of tea. Ear­li­er in the film, when he shows up for lunch at his ex-wife’s place, his face is cov­ered with paint, and he ex­plains jok­ing­ly that he has “an up­set stom­ach.” (No­tice the way his ex-wife’s hus­band looks at him for a brief sec­ond.) This is a char­ac­ter we fall in love with lit­tle by lit­tle as we re­al­ize how much he wants to par­tic­i­pate in his daughter’s life even in the most in­sane way pos­si­ble, of­ten hid­ing out of sight or pre­tend­ing to be some­one else with a wig and fake teeth. That is when Toni Erd­mann, one of his pranks, comes in — and Si­monis­chek does a fan­tas­tic job mak­ing us laugh at and feel sor­ry for this new per­sona at the same time.

San­dra Hüller also de­liv­ers an amaz­ing per­for­mance, play­ing a char­ac­ter who could have been de­testable but for­tu­nate­ly is not. It is a dif­fi­cult thing to make us em­pathize with some­one who is ev­i­dent­ly self­ish and mediocre in her work, but she nails it. Al­ways on her phone and hold­ing on to her pro­fes­sion­al ca­reer above all else, Ines is ap­palled by the idea that her fa­ther would stay in Ro­ma­nia for a month, and she only wants him around when it is con­ve­nient for her (that is, the mo­ment her client says so). When it comes to her work, she is re­signed to the fact that she is do­ing the dirty job for some­one else (though deep in­side she doesn’t feel com­fort­able with that), and she can’t even stand hav­ing sex with her col­league Tim (Trys­tan Püt­ter) any­more.

And that is what makes a key scene that takes place lat­er on so beau­ti­ful, when Ines sings Whit­ney Hous­ton at the top of her lungs at an East­er-egg paint­ing par­ty — first with hes­i­ta­tion, then em­brac­ing the re­veal­ing lyrics and fi­nal­ly storm­ing out of the place with­out say­ing good­bye to any­one when we no­tice how this whole ex­pe­ri­ence af­fect­ed her on a per­son­al lev­el. This, my friends, is how you write a script. Nu­ance is every­thing, and we re­al­ize how spe­cial Toni Erd­mann is when fa­ther and daugh­ter have a con­ver­sa­tion in a limo about the way they each see one spe­cif­ic sit­u­a­tion from very dif­fer­ent per­spec­tives. Mo­ments like this help make them hu­man, three-di­men­sion­al and lik­able.

And what can we say about the nu­di­ty (also metaphor­i­cal, of course) in one of the fun­ni­est scenes? Ade de­serves cred­it for the way that she stretch­es the ab­sur­di­ty of that se­quence much past the point of em­bar­rass­ment — and I love how in the fol­low­ing scene she lets us imag­ine what Win­fried is feel­ing with­out show­ing us his face. And since I men­tioned the su­perb hu­mor, how could we not laugh at the in­cred­i­ble mo­ment when Ines jus­ti­fies ditch­ing her fa­ther by telling him that shop­ping is bet­ter than vis­it­ing the Palace of the Par­lia­ment? Or when he sneaks into Ines’ place and al­most gives her a heart at­tack? Or a hi­lar­i­ous fart scene that is too bizarre to be real? Not to men­tion a joke that Win­fried cracks at someone’s fu­ner­al.

Us­ing only diegetic mu­sic and tak­ing her time to tell a long sto­ry that nev­er feels long, Ade di­rects Toni Erd­mann with an im­pres­sive in­tu­itive­ness. The com­e­dy and dra­ma blend al­ways so well, the pac­ing is per­fect and even her sense of fram­ing is full of nu­ances, with her cam­era em­pha­siz­ing Toni’s soli­tude by plac­ing him in cor­ners or re-fram­ing him with­in the frame (with walls and trees). It is a pity, though, that this ex­cel­lent film was so over­looked by the jury at the Fes­ti­val of Cannes, when in fact it must be re­mem­bered as a spec­tac­u­lar ex­am­ple of what cin­e­ma can do.

Oc­to­ber 17, 2016


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