The third feature film by German director Maren Ade is an almost unbearably intense comedy that was one of the most talked-about films at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.
Winfried (Peter Simonischek) is a retired piano teacher, a divorcee who delights in persistent pranks and impersonations that alienate (and occasionally alarm) everyone in his German suburb. He has not been much for staying in touch with his daughter, Ines (Sandra Hüller), a high-ranking management consultant in Bucharest who is as controlled and rigid as her father is impish. Ines also possesses a finely tuned radar for the nuances of social interaction—a trait that serves her well in the corporate world but only intensifies her discomfort when Winfried pays a surprise visit.
The cringe-inducing clash of opposites that takes place that weekend would be enough to fill a conventional comedy. But Toni Erdmann is just getting started. Soon, inexplicably, the amateur impostor has insinuated himself into his daughter’s professional life, turning it into a parade of embarrassment in which each day is worse than the last. And running beneath the humour is an increasingly disturbing undercurrent of dysfunction, one that threatens to sweep both Winfried and Ines away.
One can easily imagine this premise turning into a tale of redemption in which estranged relations heal old wounds—and the film certainly does explore the peculiar interdependency that can only arise between family members—but in Ade’s hands, it becomes something wholly original and altogether more affecting. An instant classic of embarrassment comedy (it has an excruciating “team-building exercise” to rival anything in The Office), Toni Erdmann takes its time in drawing us closer and closer to its beautifully conceived characters, and we are with it every captivating step of the way.
“Strikingly original, brilliantly acted, this serio-comic masterpiece constantly swerves expectations.” (Jamie Graham, Total Film)
“Toni Erdmann, proceeding in a perfectly straightforward manner, from one awkward, heartfelt, hilarious scene to the next, wraps itself around some of the thorniest complexities of contemporary reality.” (A.O. Scott, The New York Times)
“The film’s no-nonsense, visually plain documentary-style of shooting feels utterly appropriate to its sly evocation of the absurdities and banalities of modern life. Just brilliant.” (Dave Calhoun, Time Out London)