There is naked emotion. And then there is plain nakedness - people unclothed, bodies exposed, their guard down. Toni Erdmann, a deep, dark comedy from director Maren Ade about a tightly wound corporate type and her relentless prankster of a dad, has both kinds.
A surprisingly poignant character study that moves from goofy farce to trenchant social commentary, the German film has been a hit on the festival circuit since its May debut at Cannes. Nominated for a foreign-language Golden Globe (it lost to France's Elle), Ade's movie is on the short list of titles in that category for the Academy Awards.
It's expected to make the final five when the nominations are announced Tuesday and is already considered the front-runner for the foreign-language Oscar. Toni Erdmann is set to open locally Friday.
One of the key scenes people who have seen the movie can't stop talking about has to do with the aforementioned naked business. It's not your usual screen nudity - a lithe body lathering up in the shower, or lovers clinching and conjoining, the camera strategically positioned to capture torsos and more so.
This is bolder, more embarrassing stuff: German actress Sandra Hüller, who plays Ines, the film's central character - a consultant assembling an outsourcing plan for a Romanian oil company - has invited a clutch of colleagues, and her boss, to her Bucharest apartment for a birthday brunch. It's late in the movie, and Ines has already been through a lot.
She has problems at work and problems with her father (Peter Simonischek), a crusty old hippie and retired music teacher who has traveled from Germany and is basically stalking his daughter, putting on a wig and ridiculous fake teeth, passing himself off as a life coach, a business savant named Toni Erdmann.
Ines, at wit's end, has trouble getting into her dress, so when the doorbell rings, she just goes and answers it, somewhat fittingly, in her birthday suit. As more guests arrive, she continues parading around in the buff, serving hors d'oeuvres and small talk as though everything is normal, fine.
"The good thing is I've had experience with performing naked," Hüller told me with a smile in an interview when Toni Erdmann had its debut in the fall at the New York Film Festival. She had done an avant-garde play in her native Germany that required her to be on stage, in dishabille. "I had to find out how to be naked without being a sexual person.
"I think it's just about forgetting that you have a female body, that's that."
And, of course, she had read Ade's script. She and the other actors in the scene knew what was required. Still . . . "I found myself thinking about how I could stand in a more attractive way, how I should upright my posture so everything looks a bit better, or I could cover myself," she said.
"But then the whole scene wouldn't make sense. It only makes sense if she's acting like nothing has happened, as if she was perfectly sane, and everybody else was going crazy."
Hüller, 39, a veteran of German TV, film, and theater, says she was hesitant when Ade approached her for the lead in Toni Erdmann. The actress' daughter was only 3 at the time, it was going to be a long shoot, and the role was physically and emotionally demanding.
"In truth, I was really scared," Hüller said. "I felt, 'OK, if she wants me, I will do it, but I don't know if I can.' . . . But, ultimately, I knew Maren, she's a very special director. . . . And I'd never seen another movie like this, what she was proposing. The characters are enigmas, you can't figure them out, but at the same time, they are drawn from real life."
The director, accompanying Hüller and Simonischek at the New York festival, cited the American actor and director John Cassavetes as an important influence on her work, on what she was trying to accomplish with the film.
"I very much like his brand of actor-driven cinema," Ade said, "and this mixture of realism on one side, a realistic, everyday world - but also having it open up to so much craziness that can come out of your life."
For Hüller - who also pulls off a fierce and funny rendition of the Whitney Houston hit "Greatest Love of All" in another pivotal juncture of the film - the character of Ines is emblematic of working women today.
"She represents so many women" who are doing their jobs and exposed to gender discrimination in the workplace, Hüller said. "It is still a man's world . . . but she has chosen this job, this role, and she pursues it."
Hüller says she has talked with people who have seen the film and who find Ines to be a sad, lost soul, cold and alone.
"I do not see her that way," the actress said. "She is focused on her goals, she's not giving up . . . And when her father reenters her life, the anger and resentment that she feels towards him makes perfect sense. Some people see him as lovable, a caring father. I am not so certain. It's more complicated than that."