Toni Erdmann (2016) Review

Toni Erdmann1


Maybe you have heard the news, but this wonderful German film is getting a Hollywood remake, starring Jack Nicholson. I am sure Nicholson will do a fine job, but please see this one as well with the original German actors, because the casting is fantastic and this film is wonderfully strange and touching. I have a feeling that the original Toni Erdmann, which was nominated for best foreign film at the Oscars, will be the subtler film and that Nicholson will be too aggressive for the role.

What’s it about? Winfried (Peter Simonischek) is a strange guy. He is always putting on shows for everyone; doing practical jokes, even for the mail man. He likes dressing up, putting in false teeth, and he constantly makes up weird stories. Underneath all this surface level excitement, he is an ageing and rather lonely man. He dresses up to make himself more interesting, perhaps. Not many people take him seriously. His own family tires of his antics. His greatest grief though is that he is estranged from his daughter Ines (Sandra Huller), a successful businesswoman who travels all over the world. Successful, but stressed and emotionally closed herself.

When he learns that Ines has business to attend to in Bucharest, he flies to her, forcing her to spend time with him. So far, this is quite the tragic story of a silly, old father who cannot connect with his daughter. A daughter who has other things to worry about, such as ingratiating herself with her CEO. Then, when Ines thinks that Winfried finally went back home, he suddenly turns up in a wig, calls himself Toni Erdmann and poses as her CEO’s life coach. And it seems to get him places.

Toni Erdmann2

This movie is hilarious. The serious, sad first hour makes you feel heavy at heart, but then comes a release when the ridiculous Winfried worms his way into his daughter’s professional life as Toni Erdmann, telling everyone nonsense stories. The film is incredibly realistic, without score, without any flashy editing. Just plain, uncompromising reality. The jokes are just thrown onto the screen in an underplayed way, making them both funny and embarrassing. Half of the time I didn’t know whether I should be laughing or feel sad, so I just did both at times.

The movie is very long, but no scene is really superfluous. The slow pace and tempered tone is there to establish these characters fully in nuanced ways. It’s filled with scenes of Ines trying to do her job and of Winfried having odd encounters with Romanians. While Winfried stays in his roles of Toni, Ines runs along to watch over him and in some roundabout way they do get closer, even though they cannot seem to do this in their real life. Winfried also manages to get Ines into embarrassing situations again and again and it feels as if he both tries to shake her loose and to take petty revenge for her distance. Never has there been such a roundabout way of family members working out their issues.

And then there is the 10-minute embarrassed nude scene. it’s brilliant, full of unexpected twists. It’s like a microcosm of Winfried and Ines’ relationship. Ines, exposed but trying to make everything work, and Winfried, trying to connect behind a cover.

Funny and sad, nuanced and touching. Toni Erdmann is a brilliantly written, original work. I loved it.

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