‘Toni Erdmann’ tells a comical father-daughter tale

Feb 15, 2017
Sandra Huller plays a woman consumed by her job in “Toni Erdmann.” Contributed by Komplizen Film/Sony Pictures Classics

Don’t let the running time scare you: “Toni Erdmann,” the critically lauded German comedy from director Maren Ade, doesn’t seem to last for two hours and 42 minutes. Instead, the movie has a slow buildup to an emotional release that’s worth the wait.

The movie, nominated for an Oscar for best foreign language film, is basically about the relationship between a lonely father, Winfried, and his career-oriented daughter, Ines, who’s working as a corporate strategist in Bucharest, Romania. Ines is always on her cellphone, thinking of ways to cut people’s jobs and make her company more money. Winfried, meanwhile, is a kind-hearted soul who just lost his last piano student as well as his elderly dog.

When Ines (Sandra Huller) comes home to Germany for a family event, she ignores her father (Peter Simonischek) and everyone else by doing business on her phone and shrugging off her father’s pleas for attention. While proud of Ines and her corporate success, Winfried is also worried that his daughter is working too hard and missing out on life.

So, when Ines returns to Bucharest, Winfried has an idea. He’ll show up at her apartment there for a short visit and try to renew old bonds.

It doesn’t work out. She’s busy. He makes jabs at her ambitions. She resents his presence. So Winfried leaves after a tense weekend. Or at least Ines thinks he has left.

That’s when Winfried takes matters a step further: He becomes Toni Erdmann, a smooth-talking, wig-wearing flashy guy who pretends to be a life coach for the rich. And he begins to show up at Ines’ workplace, at the bars she frequents and elsewhere.

Both of these folks are strong-willed, and it becomes increasingly clear that neither is likely to back down. So we have one scene after another of their tug of war.

Such a setup requires strong performances from the two main actors, and Simonischek and Huller deliver. But of the two, Huller makes her character far more interesting, in part because she epitomizes someone who’s very competent at work and maybe even regards herself as one of the guys, only to find out that they really don’t see it that way.

Yet this isn’t a typical movie about feminism. Ines tells her male co-workers, “I’m not a feminist or I wouldn’t tolerate guys like you,” and writer/director Ade has said she wasn’t trying to make any big feminist statement with the movie. Rather, she says, she simply wanted to show how sexism works — and how that plays out in people’s lives.

The movie climaxes with a party that can be described as nuts. And it’s best not to say too much about it here. But it’s one of the most unusual, awkward scenes you’ll ever see on the big screen. It’s not to be missed.