Fathers are, by and large, inherently embarrassing figures. There’s a reason the phrase “dad joke” was coined and then subsequently run into the ground by ironic types, robbing the phrase of its true meaning. “Dad jokes” come from a place of isolation and loneliness, as a father peers at his child with prideful eyes, hoping to connect via a corny bit of (usually antiquated) humor that not only says “I want to be your friend”, but also “I’ll always be here, whenever you need me”. It’s the tricky equilibrium of wanting to raise and protect their spawn while still bridging a chasm that grows wider and wider with each passing year. We give dads a lot of shit for their droll attempts at staying “hip” or remaining relevant in their children’s lives, but there’s grief informing these goofy gags. Because being a dad means inevitably having to say goodbye at some point, as young men and women grow up and navigate the world on their own, leaving their fathers to utilize years of effort as a measuring stick for personal worth.
Winifried Conradi (Peter Simonischek) is one of these sad clowns, perpetually trudging toward the end of his days. An elementary music teacher in suburban Germany whose last piano student has chosen to stop taking lessons, his well of purpose has almost completely dried up. Winifried’s wife is long gone, having divorced him many years ago. Even his beloved dog Willi has had enough and finally crawls under a diminutive tree to die alone, allowing the rotten stink of mortality to pervade every frame of the picture ten minutes into its runtime. Nevertheless, Winifried is not going to let loss dilute his love of being an incorrigible prankster, as he delights in donning unconvincing disguises in order to play different characters on a day-to-day basis. Buck-toothed “Toni Erdmann” is his favorite alternate persona; a brash goofball who is able to insert himself into nearly any situation, bragging that he’s everything from a mail bomber to an international diplomat, depending on what the scenario calls for. He’s the ultimate awkward papa, always looking to bring a chuckle to those he cares about (sometimes at the gentle expense of strangers). Imagine your father constantly transforming into Tony Clifton on a whim and you’re halfway there.
In a desperate attempt to ward off this creeping sense of finality, Winifried spontaneously travels to Bucharest in order to visit his daughter, Ines (Sandra Hüller). A driven, forward-thinking consultant for multiple international oil companies, we instantly get the sense that Ines doesn’t have time for her father or really any other intimate connection. She constantly has her eye on whatever brass ring her boss (Thomas Loibl) has placed in front of her. For the moment, it’s wooing the interests of a fairly fastidious CEO (Michael Wittenborn) – a task that includes numerous uncomfortable drinks/dinner meetings and even taking his new trophy wife out shopping. Ines barely even possesses the desire to fuck her fast-climbing co-worker (Trystan Pütter) when he reserves the two a fancy hotel suite and a platter of finger pastries (which become the focus of quite an icky instance of degradation). Needless to say, she doesn’t have the inclination to host Winifried and indulge his cartoonish antics. Thus, Toni Erdmann emerges and completely takes over, as the father manufactures increasingly bizarre circumstances within Ines’ life for the two to interact.
There’s a clean yet shambling way writer/director Maren Ade (Everyone Else) allows her movie to build while (at 162 incredibly quick minutes) never seeming rushed. The gifted filmmaker realizes that this strange, personal epic is really a dance between the two leads. They court and then retreat from one another – allowing for almost musical rests to occur in order for both the characters and audience to regroup and catch their respective breath between these compulsory connections. However, this is not a comedy of the uncomfortable (as opposed to something like Curb Your Enthusiasm), as Toni manages to charm, not alienate, every unwitting party who orbits in his daughter’s corporately humorless universe. Because Toni is never coming from a place of anger or resentment. Instead, he is the extension of Winifried’s increasing seclusion and need to reassure himself that his daughter is going to be OK long after he’s moved on from this planet. He’s a walking avatar for parental necessity, put off by some of his daughter’s associates and their cold approach to existence, but never punishing them through his actions. It’s an incredible mastery of humanistic tone that Ade displays; keeping each captured flash in these two estranged family members’ lives from ever tipping into parody.
With Winifried/Toni, Peter Simonischek gives not only the absolute best performance of 2016, but also one of the best comedic performances of the last decade. Nearly every scene rides on his broad, slumped shoulders. For all of his graceful buffoonery, Winifried and Toni are defined by tiny details, as he observes every situation while it’s occurring, gathering data before slipping a set of false chompers into his maw and stealing the show. There’s a melancholy knowingness to Simonischek’s eyes that convey a commanding understanding of interaction and tender response. Conversely, Sandra Hüller’s distancing chilliness is like a layered veil that is peeled back, little by little; until she’s confronting her own multi-faceted disdain for the desolate, bougie life she’s built. It’d be easy for Ines to become a misogynistic stereotype of the inaccessible workingwoman, but Hüller’s subtle retorts to her almost entirely male co-workers’ cues clue us in to how much of her demeanor is an active rejoinder to a world dominated by power ties, not skirts. By the time she’s (rather giftedly) belting out a pop song in front of a room full of strangers, Hüller has unlocked a joy that’s been hidden away under pantsuits and killed off by career concessions. This is undoubtedly an actor’s movie, and by God the performances are mesmerizing.
“Never lose your humor,” Winifried says to Ines near the end of Toni Erdmann. This clichéd maxim would almost never work in any other movie. Were this an American studio comedy, the scene would be backed by rising strings and punctuated by a burst of tears from Ines, as she falls into her wise ancestor’s arms and the camera cranes back while the credits begin to roll. Yet Ade’s German stoicism prevails, and the movie continues on until we see the woman embrace this expertise in her own weird way. In a sense, Toni Erdmann places us in the shoes of her father from this point on, gazing via an almost Godlike view as Ines re-blossoms into the strong, smart, independent woman she always has been, shedding the lizard’s skin of a culture that has forced her to repress these expressive urges. Through all of the embarrassing weirdness and while grappling with our own sense of depressive mortality, we finally rediscovered the ability to love her on both our and her terms. With fake teeth in our mouth, a lopsided wig on our head and an ill-fitting shiny suit covering our lumpy body, the character we played in her life was undeniably silly and, at times, totally awkward, but still true. We can die happy now.