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Running at 162 minutes (but seldom dragging), German writer-director Maren Ade gives us a sleek workaholic professional German woman, Inès (Sandra Hüller). She works for a management consultant firm in Bucharest advising an oil company on making savings through layoffs. Unannounced, her shaggy music-teacher father Winfried (Austrian theater-actor Peter Simonischek), a relentless practical joker, comes to visit for the weekend. That itself is totally out of character for Winfried – his usual comfort zone is greeting a startled postman on the doorstep while wearing false teeth, an outrageous wig and speaking in a funny accent. After an awkward couple of days together, Winfried refuses to go home. He pops up everywhere that Inés goes invading her life on the local business and diplomatic scene, wearing a wig and pretending to be a buck-toothed life coach called Toni Erdmann..
The serious Ines is less than thrilled by her father’s arrival. She is completely absorbed in corporate power plays and gamesmanship, which will eventually result in people losing their jobs (long shots throughout of dilapidated Romanian locations underscore the poverty at the edges of the affluent EU zone). Ines pretends to not know her father, maybe to humor him but also to spare her embarrassment. She can’t wait to put her father in a taxi to the airport after a series of near-disastrous encounters between him and her work colleagues and clients. The 10 seconds or so the two of them have to endure while waiting for an elevator after they’ve already said their insincere goodbyes is a most memorable scene. Suffice to say, that’s not the last the film will see of Winfried (and Toni) but to reveal much more would spoil the many delightful twists.
What can be said is that director Ade is adept at deriving intricately nuanced performances from Simonischek and Huller and gains audience sympathy for these at-first irritating, perhaps even unlikable characters that grow softer over the course of the film. Beneath Winfried’s goofy idiocy lies a kindly heart and genuine curiosity about the world around him. Like his newly deceased, much beloved blind dog, Willi, he’s a bit dim but loyal, dogged and loving. Simonischek plays Winfried with a precision of feeling and innate, bearish charm that may remind you of Philip Seymour Hoffman at his peak. Simonischek succeeds in presenting a man whose clownish cuddly charm masks a deep loneliness. And his co-star Huller is easily his match. Ines is a meticulously realized, immediately recognizable character for current times: a professional woman swimming intrepidly but also against life’s current. Her humanity also grows as the film progresses and Huller and Ade literally strip away the character’s career-girl defenses and we see a woman capable of warmth.
In addition to the superior acting, the film is blessed with a no-nonsense, visually plain documentary-style of shooting which feels appropriate to its sly evocation of the absurdities and banalities of modern life. Part of the film’s success can also be attributed to the way that Ade manages the arc of the tonal change from serious message to a gentle free-spirited buffoonery.
It should be noted that there is graphic frontal nudity – male and female and simulated sex. However, those of you who enjoy such scenes may be disappointed. Nudity is not effective when paraded and the scenes are more comical then arousing. They are not offensive but one masturbatory scene continues unnecessarily long. Despite such quibbling, Toni Erdmann is a moving, often tender film and a worthy contender for a Best Foreign Film Award. Mostly in German (some English) with English subtitles.