Friday, March 19, 2021

Toni Erdmann (2016)

Germany / Austria / Monaco / Romania / France / Switzerland, 162 minutes
Director/writer: Maren Ade
Photography: Patrick Orth
Music: Whitney Houston karaoke, The Cure
Editor: Heike Parplies
Cast: Peter Simonischek, Sandra Huller, Thomas Loibl, Ingrid Bisu, Michael Wittenborn, Trystan Putter, Lucy Russell, Hadewych Minis, Vlad Ivanov

With money flowing in to finance it from six separate EU countries (even little Monaco by the sea), it's arguable that the point of Toni Erdmann is as an examination of the emptiness of neoliberalism. That's some rich irony there, but really the movie's strength is more on family issues, with another convincing heartache show (albeit black comedy too) about the difficulties parents and their grown children can have. Peter Simonischek is Winfried Conradi, a retired (and aging) father with a broad streak of dad humor, and Sandra Huller is his daughter Ines, a corporate creature in her 30s working formally as a consultant, a master of Microsoft Project and Microsoft Excel systematically working her way up by the book. Her dream is a position in Singapore.

Winfried is actually funny at least as often as he is annoying, and he can be quite annoying. He and Ines are locked in a long-term feedback loop of passive-aggressive hostility which escalates, eventually to absurd extremes, across the length of this rather long movie. Their rocky relations are intense, sometimes feeling closer to hatred, but also like normal family with all the frustrations of love and loved ones. When they are alone they can say terrible things to each other and deliberately misunderstand things. "Do you have any plans in life other than slipping fart cushions under people?" Ines asks him at one point. "I don't have a fart cushion," he says. Later, we see that he has acquired one and is using it in public to distract her.

Among other things Winfried is just a lonely old man with a lot of time on his hands and little understanding and much suspicion about how the world works now. He doesn't know what outsourcing is, for example, though it's a key part of Ines's work. He is prone to episodes that veer off almost into stalking. On a surprise visit for her birthday, he appears unannounced in the lobby of the building where Ines works in Romania. They are German and he lives in Germany. Ines is surrounded by colleagues obviously conducting serious business and must pretend not to know him. Winfried has a genius for situations where Ines is in no position to introduce him and instead must just keep a wary eye on him.

"Toni Erdmann" is approximately the point where Winfried's dad humor passes from pathetic to almost pathological. Erdmann is one of Winfried's alternate personalities, introduced when Ines is out for a night with girlfriends and has just been complaining about her father's latest surprise visit. Erdmann suddenly looms up next to them in the bar, introduces himself, and begins relaying ridiculous stories about his work as a consultant and life coach. He never left Bucharest after all, and though it's a prank it is also a lot like stalking and maybe even worse. In his stories and manner as Erdmann he is caustic and making fun of Ines's lifestyle and her choices but only Ines can see it. He wears an even more ridiculous fright wig and false teeth. Ines's friends find him a strange and hilarious eccentric (they never learn he is Ines's father) but as he drops the right names—in the movie, somehow he actually inveigles his way in with captains of industry—they are eager to exchange business cards with him.

Ines is a version of the uptight sister in Fleabag, a meticulously constructed corporate management savant holding on by strength of will. We see her coolly accepting responsibility for major projects, taking control of meetings and larger strategies and tactics, and also the demeaning work forced on her because she is a woman, her ability to concentrate and overcome obstacles and succeed. Among other results of all this we see she has a notably intriguing and disgusting kink.

She starts to become strange herself late in the picture when, mostly out of her frustration about getting into the outfit she intended to wear for a formal brunch she is giving, she decides to make the occasion a naked one, requiring her colleagues to undress completely for entry into her apartment. She says it's part of an interesting team-building exercise she read about. In fact, it appears more like she is turning into a chip off the old block as this passive-aggressive confrontational style is exactly Winfried's or, oh hell, make it Toni Erdmann's. He got the title of the picture, after all. For his part, he shows up at the brunch in an elaborate yeti costume, though once again no one but Ines knows it's him. But now they are less rivals and more collaborators.

I like Toni Erdmann because I like Simonischek's and Huller's performances, it gets into lots of funny and inspired bits, and it has a nice easygoing gait, all which mitigate the long running time. Simonischek and Huller have an unusual chemistry and work really well together, in many ways pulling against standard dad and daughter stereotypes (in other ways leaning right into them). I saw it a few years ago and didn't remember much about it except that every time I thought of Simonischek's face it somehow made me smile. I don't know him at all, and he was in his 70s, so it says something about his charisma and skill. Seeing the picture again the other day it's obvious how inspired it all is, even as it goes way over the top in its finish. It's often funny and, though the relentless ironic stance somewhat belies it, can be touching as well.

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