Written by Michael Clawson
In director Maren Ade’s latest film, which begins in current day Germany, Peter Simonischek plays Winifred Conradi, a divorced, unkempt, and oafish schoolteacher. He’s nearing retirement and seems to be suppressing his loneliness and ennui with practical jokes that sometimes go too far. He lacks a sense of boundaries and is either overconfident in the degree to which others appreciate his humor or is simply short on self-awareness. His daughter, Ines, played by Sandra Huller, is a high-strung, ambitious businesswoman who’s regularly forced to put up with insufferable, sexist males colleagues. She’s a consultant for an oil company in Bucharest, Romania, constantly extending her stay in the country at her boss’ request; she’d rather relocate to Shanghai.
The film kicks off in earnest when, at a small family gathering to celebrate Ines’ birthday, Winifred begins to pick up on the fact that Ines might not be as happy as she lets on. To better assess the situation, he does what any good father would do – he goes to Bucharest and starts unexpectedly showing up at Ines’ work with a bad wig, fake teeth, and the persona of Toni Erdmann, an eccentric character who’s background and profession changes depending on who’s asking.
Winifred never explains outright the reason for his appearances. Is he trying to get Ines to lighten up? Is he as unhappy and lonely as he thinks she is, and thus seeking her companionship? Or does he actually think Ines and her colleagues will find his gag as amusing as he does?
Toni Erdmann is a delightfully bizarre, funny, and touching father-daughter comedy that gives us reason to believe Winifred’s real motivation is perhaps some combination of the above and much more. To some extent, Winifred himself might not even be able to fully articulate why he keeps up the act. What’s even more a pleasure to contemplate is why Ines tolerates and sometimes welcomes Toni into the boardrooms and business dinners at which much of her time is spent. Like most great films, the ambiguity necessitates multiple viewings, upon which I don’t expect the humor to lose its potency nor do I expect the commentary on workplace sexism, fatherhood, daughterhood, careerism, loneliness, and the search for the meaning of life to become any less fascinating.
Toni Erdmann Trailer
Toni Erdmann is currently available on VOD