Opening 14 Jul 2016
There was plenty of applause from the press at Cannes this year when this film was shown in the competition. In the end it won the prize of the International Federation of Film Critics, and was acclaimed as that most impossible of things: a true German comedy.
So great were my expectations that I was bound to be disappointed when I saw the film. In my view it is not a German comedy at all but a tragicomedy with universal meaning. Parallels with Death of a Salesman and Modern Times came to mind, stories of individuals caught in the destructive machinery of a streamlined modern economy. And stories of those loving clownish onlookers who stand helplessly on the sidelines and try to win a smile from the ones they love. This is the story at the heart of Toni Erdmann.
We first see Winfried (Simonischek), a man in his sixties at the door of a nondescript suburban house, playing a practical joke on the mailman. We meet Ines (Hüller), his daughter, a thirtyish woman with a permanent scowl on her forehead and a startling rudeness to her father. Ines works with an international consultancy in Romania and is constantly on the phone managing her project. Ines blocks off all attempts at personal conversation with her family and neighbors.
Winfried is worried about Ines and follows her, uninvited, to Romania. What follows is Winfried’s clumsy attempt to reach Ines emotionally. This is excruciatingly painful to watch, a bit like a tooth extraction. On the one hand is Ines’ world: interminable business meetings in dreadfully poor English, mumbled agreements to nasty business deals, office parties of sterile dullness. And then Winfried’s playacting alter ego Toni Erdmann bursts in on Ines’ narrow life. Toni is Winfried as a clown in false teeth and wig, voicing one impossible opinion after another. This series of embarrassments and interruptions goes on and on. And Ines does react to this.
This is definitely not a light-hearted comedy, and in my view far too long (162 minutes), but these two characters are memorable and may well become a permanent part of German film vocabulary. (Ann Gebauer-Thompson)