Movie of the Week: ‘Toni Erdmann’

Sandra Huller stars in “Anatomy of a Fall” (2023), director Justine Triet’s crime drama that won the 2023 Cannes Film Festival’s Palme d’Or.  So, AHFW wishes to recognize Huller’s outstanding work in the Oscar-nominated, “Toni Erdmann” (2016). 

Who is Toni Erdmann?  Well, no character in the movie is officially named Toni Erdmann, but Winfried (Peter Simonischek) – a father desperately seeking attention from his daughter Ines (Sandra Huller) – actually creates an alter-ego with the said moniker. 

AHFW not only thinks that Huller deserved the 2016 Best Actress Oscar, but director Maren Ade’s picture is one of the very best of the 21st century!

Here’s our full review:

“Toni Erdmann” (2016) – “To a father growing old, nothing is dearer than a daughter.” – Euripides

Winfried (Peter Simonischek) is a piano teacher.  This 60-something with a rumpled wardrobe and a full mop of silver hair gives lessons in his home and plays the black and white keys for recitals at a local school.  During one particular number, the children mark themselves in zombie makeup and dedicate a song to an outgoing administrator.  The lyrics “here today, gone tomorrow” stand out during the piece, while Winfried – also caked in makeup – plays along. 

This small, early scene says so much about Winfried’s life in two ways.  First, not unlike playing the piano, he likes – and is willing – to play at any time of the day.  Play practical jokes.  Second, his beloved and only child – his daughter Ines (Sandra Huller) – works as a consultant, far away in Bucharest, Romania, while he lives a generally lonely existence in his German hometown.  

“Gone tomorrow” is his unfortunate present. 

Ines (Sandra Huller) and Winfried (Peter Simonischek)

Well, Ade wraps an absolutely marvelous cinematic present in her third feature film, about the trying relationship between father and daughter.  With a truly breezy runtime of 2 hours and 42 minutes, she unlocks deep, soulful themes, surprises with unexpected comedic turns and offers, hands down, the best foreign language film that I have seen over the last 13 months. 

Winfried probably sees Ines once every 13 months, but most likely, those lapses of contact stretch longer.  While they seem worlds apart from a physical distance, Winfried and Ines could also not be more emotionally different.

Ade lays this groundwork rather quickly.  In addition, to Winfried’s disheveled appearance, she figuratively presents him like a defeated, aging comedian performing in near-empty theatres with stale material and lost, 30-year-old social references.  Of course Winfried is not a professional comedian, but he does turn to his unique brand of comedy – odd practical jokes – in his daily life, as a way to (attempt to) connect, with just about everyone he meets. 

He, however, almost constantly seems out of step. 

For instance, he attends a lunch party at his ex-wife’s house to see Ines but shows up at the front door with zombie makeup (from the previously-mentioned school concert).  He always carries a false set of “monster teeth” in his front pocket and pops them in for no apparent reason, other to garner a reaction and on occasion, falls into his alter-ego and tells stories about his fictitious life coaching business. 

I’m certain that millions – if not billions – of daughters need a global support group to heal the mortification from their fathers’ amateur attempts at embarrassing humor, but Ines has to be planet’s number one case study.  

You see, while Winfried’s unique strain of arrested development embodies him, not an ounce of teenage frivolity passed along to her.  Ines is a workaholic, and her job pays her exorbitant amounts of money to concoct business strategies to slash payrolls.  It is a humorous reality, but as a skilled professional, she stays in beautiful high rise apartments with luxurious creature comforts.   Ade smartly contrasts Ines’ plush living arrangements with her antiseptic workspace. In one scene, Ines delivers a critical client presentation in the most lifeless, bland conference room this side of Initech from “Office Space” (1999).  We see that Ines carries heaps of responsibility for an important job, but her actual work and its surroundings are ultimately soulless.

On the other hand, Winfried’s unexpected trip to Bucharest tries to breathe soul into Ines’ world, but it is unwanted color.  She certainly needs some sort of levity, but not from her dad, as only embarrassed kids can understand.  Winfried badly misses her, but his behavior ranges from a jokey pest to a ticking time bomb.  Apparently, he can simply appear anywhere, much to the shock and disapproval of Ines.  At the moment, her life is consumed with closing a big deal with some very important people, and her dad’s repeated stumbles into her work ecosystem and raises the tension during several key, mouth-agape moments.  Many times, Winfried’s includes his infamous fake teeth (and more) in the most inopportune times when working his brand of clumsy anti-appeal.   

Throughout the story, Ade introduces sympathy towards each character.  It primarily rests with Ines, but it volleys between the two.  Neither Winfried or Ines are antagonists, but misunderstood protagonists, whose parent/child connection needs extensive calibration by unknown doses of quality time. 

Ade’s rich script devotes heaps of resonant quality time with Ines and Winfried, and both Huller and Simonischek rise to the challenge and embrace their characters’ father/daughter toxic chemistry, but Ade offers enlightening insight into both as individuals, especially Ines. Huller delivers an absolutely sensational performance by exploring Ines’ complicated DNA. 

During the constant barrage of her dad’s gags, Ines holds herself together in public forums, but allows the movie audience to see her the obvious frustration “beautifully” bubble to the surface in subtle looks, slightly uneasy gestures and swallows of anger.  No, Ines is not simply an overachieving robot, despite Winfried’s perceptions.  She wishes to stretch herself emotionally, but does not seem to have the tools to express herself.  This becomes especially clear during three highly memorable scenes, an intimate moment with her boyfriend, a party with her work colleagues and a particular musical number.  In one place, she does not convey her vulnerability enough, she expresses way too much of herself during another and oddly and wonderfully combines both during the third scene.  In addition to calibrating her connection to her dad, she needs to get attune with herself, and perhaps rest and reflection are good ingredients for this recipe.  Surprisingly, Ines does relax a bit when her dad is near, because she lets down her guard and naps on a few occasions.  Perhaps they mark the start of her own journey.  We know that Winfried will want to help in any way he can.  Nothing is dearer than Ines, but he’ll carry his monster teeth in tow.  

⭐⭐⭐⭐ out of ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Directed and written by:  Maren Ade

Starring:  Sandra Huller, Peter Simonischek, Thomas Loibl, and Michael Wittenborn

Runtime:  162 minutes

Rated: R

Image credits: Komplizen Film

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