Earlier in 2016, movies like Manchester by the Sea, Birth of a Nation, and Captain Fantastic dominated film festival chatter, with speculations as to which were going to be the heavy-hitters for the Oscar season at the end of the year. Amidst such chatter however, was one film that was not getting as much media attention, yet it was slowly gaining a more vocal following. With each passing festival, quiet rumblings regarding the German family dramedy Toni Erdmann started penetrating conversations more sharply, as it began picking up accolades at the Cannes Film Festival, the Toronto Film Critics Association and, most recently, the Palm Springs International Film Festival. This week, the Oscar nominations were announced, with Toni Erdmann receiving one for Best Foreign Language Film. At this point, it should be no stretch of the imagination to think it could very well be the front-runner, and for good reason. Not only is it a deeply affecting story about how family dynamics can drastically change in our modern world, but it blends moments of great pathos with humour, and will leave you chuckling to yourself far after it’s done.
The story begins with establishing the rather solitary life of Winfried Conradi, a man who finds great pleasure in finding ways to remind those around him of the exuberance and fun that everyday life can offer. A man comes to his door with a package, and Winfried answers pretending to be his deranged, twin brother known for creating mail bombs, and he also has a peculiar affection for wearing play-teeth whenever he performs such pranks on people. Unfortunately, those around him are more likely to be turned off or annoyed by his youthful playfulness. A boy that he was teaching piano lessons to abruptly quits, and he also finds out that his grown daughter, Ines, planned an early birthday party at her mother’s house, which he was not invited to.
Shortly after we are introduced to Ines, we begin to understand that the film is more about her, and even though her father may seem objectively annoying to so many, she may actually be in desperate need of the kind of help he can provide. She is currently working as a consultant for an oil company, and has the unenviable task of finding options to outsource some of their services, potentially laying off hundreds of workers. Initially, she efficiently performs her job by refusing to speak her mind, while also accepting the responsibility of unpopular decisions. Winfred recognizes that, perhaps because of her job, Ines has difficulty with emotional honesty. Her inability to be honest with him especially proves worrisome. At one point, he visits her and in his signature way to lighten the mood, gives her a lame but good natured joke-birthday present: a cheese grater in an expensive-looking box. The next morning after a fight, she tersely says “If I wanted to jump out the window tomorrow, you and your cheese grater wouldn’t be able to stop me.” Winfred’s strategy then reaches a new level of theatricality: sporting the play-teeth he is so fond of as well as an oddly-fitting wig, he pretends to be the eccentric Toni Erdmann, a supposed life-coach to one of her business associates, and proceeds to unexpectedly show up at different events. Needless to say, if seriously uncomfortable humour is not your thing, think hard about whether you want to see this film.
The film certainly raises some interesting questions regarding whether Winfried’s values of trying to live in the moment by taking everything in stride, is applicable in the corporate environment the Ines finds herself engulfed in, and as a result the relationship between them takes on a sweet but melancholy feel. When Winfried is Toni, one gets the feeling he is trying to expose the phony attitudes of Ines’ business associates, as his antics become more obnoxious, yet garner little response from them in the moment. Doing so reveals the heart at the centre of the film, as the once-cold Ines begins holding back sly smiles and giggles as she watches her father. As though she wants to join in his silliness, but knows she can’t. And the performances by the two main actors, Sandra Huller and Peter Simonischek, are stellar. Huller slowly reveals more layers of conflicted emotions, and Simonischek at times subtly shows the shadings of deep heartache thinly hidden behind his bizarre behaviors. Their performances are also a major reason why the comedy works so well, as their comedic timing can be so subtle that it feels completely emotionally authentic, grounding the outlandish plot, which makes it all the more charming and squirm-inducing.
About midway through, the film steps into darker territory meant to illustrate the consequences that Winfried’s carefree existence can have on the workers within the oil company. Yet soon after, the biggest crowd-pleasing moment in the film — that may make some audience members hold back tears — comes when Winfried pressures Ines into singing a certain Whitney Houston song in front of a group of strangers, underlining the emotional journey the character is on. The message that the writer and director Maren Ade may want us to leave with is that such a carefree and humourous outlook can co-exist in the seemingly cold modern corporate climate. But with that knowledge also comes the realization that those moments of happiness end up being all the more fleeting. Like Winfried notes, life starts moving so fast we end up just wanting to sit somewhere and force ourselves to try to remember and hold on to happier times.
Beginning today, Toni Erdmann will be playing at the Tiff Bell Lightbox! See it!