Film Review: “Toni Erdmann” — Humor is Tedium’s Balm

Toni Erdmann gently but somewhat darkly reminds us that living life in the fast lane means missing out on its slower, humbler pleasures.

Toni Erdmann, written and directed Maren Ade. by Screening at Kendall Square Cinema, Cambridge, MA and West Newton Cinema, Newton, MA.

A scene from "Toni Erdmann."

A scene featuring Peter Simonischek in “Toni Erdmann.”

By Peg Aloi

It’s that time of year again: selected suburbanites trek into the cities to see the Oscar nominees for Best Foreign Film. The nominees often don’t make it into theatres before the Oscars broadcast; Denmark’s WWII drama Land of Mine and Australia’s tribal epic Tanna haven’t been seen by anyone in the States so far. It’s a diverse list this year, at least judging from the films I’ve seen: the dark, moving Iranian film The Salesman (whose director Ashgar Farhadi will now, presumably, be allowed to attend the ceremony now that the so-called Muslim travel ban has been lifted, thank goodness); Sweden’s boilerplate grouchy-old-man-finds-happiness story A Man Called Ove (with a great performance by Rolf Lassgard); and Germany’s lengthy, laconic comedy Toni Erdmann. Tone and scale are all over the map; it’s surprising that France’s Things to Come, a subtle film starring white-hot critic’s darling Isabelle Huppert did not make the list.

Toni Erdmann is a strange contender indeed. At 162 minutes (that’s nearly three hours!), it’s not something audiences will eagerly gravitate towards. But I did not find the film overly long; it is fascinating to watch the narrative unfold, driven as it is by the low-key antics of its main characters. The time breezed by like a brisk walk by the Rhine. Not that Germany is the featured landscape here: the film’s first half is set in Bucharest, Romania, where 30-something Ines (Sandra Hüller) works at a high-powered corporate job. Her father Winfried (Peter Simonischek), who she sees infrequently, and who is a recently-retired piano teacher, comes for a brief visit. It’s awkward, partly because he shows up in Halloween make-up thanks to an event he attended with some schoolchildren earlier that day. Ines’ embarrassment prompts her to go outside and pretend to be on a business call; that act seems to goad her father and, unbeknownst to her, practical joker decides to stay longer than she’d planned for. He appears at a restaurant when she’s out with friends, dressed in a ridiculous disguise with an ill-fitting dark wig and a monstrous fake bridge of teeth. He continues to pop up in public places, even shadows her at work. He invents a persona, “Toni Erdmann,” who is a life coach and, at one point, morphs into a German ambassador.

The motive? Ines’ father thinks her life is too rigid and devoid of pleasure, so he plays these “pranks” to, presumably, help her break out of the rut he thinks she is in. She is clearly rattled by his presence, embarrassed and unsure how to cope with his dogged insistence on invading her personal life. But while Ines is annoyed by her father’s shenanigans, he seems to charm others with his raffish outfits and his warm, friendly manner, even when it’s perfectly clear that his posing as a life coach, in his slouchy suit and unshaven face, is absurd.

Winfried stays at a hotel where he invents his daily pranks. Eventually, Ines figures out that he’s just going to keep showing up. Her work life is stressful, and her life is regimented. Even her sex life with co-worker boyfriend Tim (Trystan Pütter) is oddly manipulative and calculating; she meets his genuine affection by keeping him at arms’ length. She wears tight short skirts and tailored blouses with uncomfortable high heels that she kicks off at every opportunity. At one point, she injures her toe and tries to peel the broken, inflamed toenail off in a restroom before a major presentation. She manages to get some blood on her blouse and she must swap tops with her secretary Anca (Romanian actress Ingrid Bisu). Anca must take notes during the presentation and Ines has to continually remind her to keep her hair pulled forward to cover the blood stain. It’s scenes like this, which dramatize the complex webs of control, self-consciousness, and coping mechanisms that dominate Ines’ existence, that gradually make us root for Winfried and his admittedly irritating attempts to derail his daughter’s routine.

The film effectively evokes the bleak world of corporate mundanity: the posturing for authority and dominance, the undercurrent of sexual tension alongside abstract, businesslike interactions, the brittle plastic aesthetics of offices and hotels. Ines holds her life together as tightly as she can, but it’s obvious she’s starting to have moments of existential crisis, where she visibly seems to wonder what she’s doing, appalled by the dehumanizing mainstream trappings of her life. Winfried, as Toni, is a sort of shabby, warm-blooded emblem of vulnerability, like a poorly house-trained pet waiting for us to notice it, desperate for re-assuring hugs and treats. When Ines finally realizes her life is every bit as odd as her father’s crude costumes, the bristling tension of their relationship resolves into a comfortable moment of recognition.

Director Marin Ade, interestingly, took a seven year break from her busy filmmaking life to have two children, working on Toni Erdmann through both pregnancies. Her second film, Everyone Else (2009), won a Silver Bear award in Berlin, but Toni Erdmann is winning her considerable international attention. Her approach is confident — she does not take the bait in scenes where other directors might have gone for quick dramatic epiphanies or expository confrontations. You can’t question the film’s rambling, languid pace. The rhythms of daily life pulse throughout, but a larger picture and satiric point eventually comes into view — and its message is an important one to heed for viewers itching to get back to their smartphones and Twitter feeds. Toni Erdmann gently but somewhat darkly reminds us that becoming addicted to life in the fast lane means missing something of incalculable value — the slow, humble, pleasurable things happening here and now.

Peg Aloi is a former film critic for The Boston Phoenix. She has taught film studies for a number of years at Emerson College and is currently teaching media studies at SUNY New Paltz. Her reviews have appeared in Art New England and Cinefantastique Online.

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