Laced with surrealist comedy and relationship drama, Toni Erdmann works so well in part because of Sandra Muller’s blank canvas performance. Martin Carr takes a closer look at this widely acclaimed German-Austrian comedy-drama…
Be warned because Toni Erdmann is going to get remade. This is a shame for many reasons, but chief amongst them is the juxtaposition of pitch black humour and character beats in a culture not known for its sense of humour. German made and laced with surrealist comedy and relationship drama, Toni Erdmann works so well in part because of Sandra Muller’s blank canvas performance. She is one half of a father-daughter dynamic who represents the perfect foil to Peter Simonischek’s Winfred.
He is the focal point around which others orbit and it is his refusal to conform which makes much of Toni Erdmann come alive. At its heart this film is about fractured relationships, bonding experiences and people remembering the little things. But Winfred throws so many absurdist curveballs into the mix that scenes can turn from comedy through farce into pathos, with barely a perceivable change in tone. He is essentially the fish out of water trying to reconnect with his child by gate crashing her life and trying to reconcile his own after a tragedy.
What director Maren Ade does so well is keep a tight hold on the direction without dampening its creativity. Slowly but surely we see Winfred break down his daughter’s self-imposed barriers between life and work. Certain scenes are awkward intentionally, ludicrous with purpose and socially relevant without feeling preachy. Toni Erdmann is a long film clocking in at over two hours thirty minutes but there is no self-indulgence or wasted time. Each moment is used growing character, developing connection and establishing circumstance.
Coming across like a slightly taller Les Patterson, Simonischek is both the fool and rock within the film who plays it straight throughout giving Winfred heart, soul and emotions to match. There are light-hearted moments here but these are always backed up by purpose either through social comment, visual cues or selective silence. There are few comparisons which spring to mind from modern cinema, apart from Mrs Doubtfire or Tootsie for obvious reasons. But the assumption of identity here is not merely about gaining access or spending quality time with loved ones. Beating at the heart of this memorable film is a life lesson worth remembering.
People in this world are always on the move, always adopting someone else’s point of view in order to conform and often to the detriment of personal relationships. In a world where to be first or get ahead is a prerequisite of survival in the modern world, Toni Erdmann asks the question why with eloquence, subtlety and no agenda. There are character moments here which are developed through familiarity and specific cultural constructs which might not translate overseas. However to begin dissecting this film would be giving that game away and robbing others of their opinion.
There have been rumours in the press that if this is remade then it might tempt Jack Nicholson out of retirement. Within minutes I understood why because Winfred is a complex character and to see Nicholson in this role might be the ultimate swan song. Not only that but if they get it right we might witness Jack disappear which would be an act indeed.
Written by Martin Carr
Directed by: Maren Ade
Written by: Maren Ade
Starring: Peter Simonischek, Sandra Hüller, Ingrid Bisu, Michael Wittenborn
Released: 2016 / Genre: Comedy-Drama
Country: Germany/Austria / IMDB
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Toni Ermann is release on UK DVD and Blu-ray May 29, 2017.