Two hours into its hefty run time I realised everything about Toni Erdmann had been perfect until that point, and if it had another two hours to go then that would be delightful news. I say that as someone who loathes the idea that anything exists that is longer than 120 minutes. Toni Erdmann simply flies by.
A film about humour but containing more sadness than smiles, at its heart it is a father and daughter story that touches on a bit of everything else in the process. Generational divides, capitalism, sexism, cultural integration, class – they all circle the nebulous relationship between father Winfried Conradi and his daughter Ines.
Triggered by the death of his dog, Winfried sets out to reconnect with his daughter who lives in Bucharest. When she visits home her mind is still back at work as she spends most of her time on the phone, rarely smiling and always ‘on.’ Winfried has a penchant for japes, which clashes with Ines’s aggressively career-focused lifestyle.
What follows is an often bizarre series of events. Seeking to truly connect with his daughter Winfried creates an alter ego called Toni Erdmann, fully rounding out his personality for when anyone close to Ines meets him. A type of push and pull role play ensues as Ines becomes increasingly swept up in the fun of it all while also stressed about the importance of her job as a consultant. Winfried is such a kindhearted spirit that every situation he finds himself in is entirely believable – while his daughter is a professional and good at what she does, Winfried has the charm and the people skills. He is fiercely proud of his daughter, and is undoubtedly impressed by her – he never seeks to change her relationship with her career, but simply wants to find a space for him in her life.
Both leads are fully fleshed out. Winfried is of a more relaxed era, somewhat hippy-esque, here for a good time, and believes that humour and shared moments are the key to life. Ines is a powerful woman, more intelligent than she is given credit for, and she is in control of her life, even if that life could be better. She lacks the empathy of her father, but this is a symptom of the world she exists in. The pressure to ‘make it’ is foreign to Winfried, or is not something he is driven by, but he is retired and Ines is trying to live in the present. While he is trying to connect with his next of kin, he is also trying to find what it is that actually bonds them across two entirely different generations.
There are some genuinely stellar scenes – a musical moment in particular is absolutely rapturous – and despite some absurd situations the story never feels implausible. One instance of losing friends and alienating people is so over the top but undeniably effective that it feels like a case of reality being stranger than fiction, even though it is invented. Director and writer Maren Ade has tapped into the feeling that real life can provide exceptional stories, and it is not surprising to hear she drew inspiration from her own father. Toni Erdmann feels real.
Having polled 163 film critics worldwide, Sight & Sound concluded that Toni Erdmann was the best film of 2016. The hype has an effect on expectation, something unavoidable if release dates are staggered (released last summer in Germany, it opens here in the UK next month). La La Land, Manchester by the Sea, and Moonlight all ‘suffered’ from the same weight – we are supposed to like these films. While Moonlight has yet to be released in the UK, Toni Erdmann is the most reliable of 2016’s acclaimed bunch. Full of heart and authenticity, it is both chock full of ideas and simplistically intimate. This is a father and daughter story through and through, timely in its setting but timeless in its message and appeal.