You can’t choose your family, can you? Even if there are times you would want to. Such is the case with Ines (Sandra Hüller), a young woman who is completely caught up in building her career, to the extent that she has mostly shut out her father Winfried (Peter Simonischek). He is a big prankster, turning every situation into a joke, but deep down his non-existent relationship with his daughter eats at him. So on a whim, he decides to inject himself into her life. He surprises her in Bucharest, where she is working as a consultant on an important contract in the oil industry. After a few awkward meetings, Ines decides that it’s best if her father goes home. He seems to reluctantly agree, but it doesn’t take long for him to show up again as his alter ego Toni Erdmann, complete with fake wig and teeth. It is an act of desperation, but the crazier things get (and with Toni, things can get very crazy), the more Ines lets go of her rigid life as a career woman and chooses to live a little and appreciate things that are closer to the heart. Toni Erdmann is at its core a film about self-discovery, certainly for Ines, but for Winfried as well. A film about the importance of family, that one constant in your life, and about breaking the mold and actually being a family.
In her first two films, young German director Maren Ade has already showed a keen eye for human relationships and how they work. For all the lo-fi techs and frankly terrible acting in The Forest for the Trees, the insecurities of protagonist Melanie in her interactions with other people are very recognizable. Similarly, the relationship between Chris and Gitti in the Silver Bear-winning Everyone Else is not your standard depiction, but it feels more authentic than most other, heightened screen relationships. Ade’s strength is accentuating the awkward moments, the lulls and the uncomfortable silences, and the often unspoken dissatisfaction with a relationship, those moments when you are not happy with the other, but you dare not say it out loud. As opposed to most other portrayals in film, where these feelings often are spoken out loud, or where we see the happy moments, Ade seeks the silences, the non-communication, and much less the confrontation.
This is also Winfried’s strategy in the film, in a way. He shuns direct confrontation with his daughter by creating Toni. It is an outcry, as he tries to reach out to Ines, to build some kind of relationship again, but also to shake up her career path a bit, as he sees the self-destructive aspects of her work-above-life attitude. This is one of the strengths of Toni Erdmann, as Ade manages to not only get into the dysfunctional father-daughter relationship, but also tackles issues like sexism in the work environment, the pressures of a corporate career, and the effects of globalization and outsourcing. These are peripheral issues, but the film still makes poignant points about them, without being preachy or didactic. The dialogue is full of sly, off-the-cuff remarks that take on a deeper meaning the longer you think about them. In a sense, Winfried is like Daniel Blake, from Ken Loach’s competition entry by the same title, and Ines one of the people he is battling. He is from another generation, when things were simpler, and people still had time for each other. She, on the other hand, is from a world of KPIs and ‘winning,’ of always besting the others, of a ‘work hard, play hard’ mentality. Like in Loach’s social drama, these worlds clash, but in Toni Erdmann it is the familial relation that wins out in the end, though not before Ines’ world is turned completely upside down.
Toni Erdmann wouldn’t work as well as it does if it weren’t for the two central performances. Peter Simonischek as Winfried/Toni manages to convey the pain over his strained relationship with Ines in small gestures and looks, as well as attacking the larger-than-life aspect of his character’s alter ego with great abandon. Sandra Hüller, in the meantime, turns in an incredibly brave and (literally, as well) naked performance as Ines, a woman who is on the verge of breaking, but who also discovers that there is more in life than her career. Plus, her rendition of Whitney Houston’s “The Greatest Love of All” brought down the house. It is an incredibly dedicated performance, and a risky one, since Ines is not the most likable character. The fact that the audience is rooting for Ines at the end is a testament to the humanity Hüller manages to bring to her role.
Underneath all the hilarity, and the film does provide several laugh-out-loud moments, Toni Erdmann is also a sad film that underlines the deterioration of family relationships in modern society, the more reserved, business-like approach, where family becomes just another item in our ever- so-busy agenda, a nuisance more than a priority. Which it shouldn’t be, according to the film, because in the end, isn’t family all we have?