'Toni Erdmann': Father and daughter reconnect during a bizarre, surreal adventure

Give me a movie, and I’ll talk about it for hours.

I’ll talk and talk till you go blue.

But when it comes to German writer-director Maren Ade’s stun-gun of a comedy-drama, Toni Erdmann, the best I can do is explain how profoundly I am at a loss for words.

The best I can do is to urge you to experience it for yourself.

A surreal, absurdist mini-picaresque adventure about an aging father’s attempt to reconnect with his disapproving daughter, Toni Erdmann is an immensely rich, deeply felt exploration of human relationships that draws you in and holds you fast for nearly three hours.

Yet it doesn’t really have a plot.

What action and dialogue there is was devised by cast and crew through a long process of immersion, interaction, and improvisation. (They showed up on location, hung out together, and played. They played and played.)

The result is a film so fresh and so incredibly raw that it crackles with an electricity that’s as strange as it is fascinating.

Set in the Romanian capital of Bucharest, the film stars popular Austrian actor Peter Simonischek (Ruby Red, October November) as divorced music teacher Winfried Conradi, a rotund man-child well into his 60s, who never quite outgrew his days as a hippie. He rarely sees his daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller), a business consultant who left Germany for a job with a consulting firm in Romania. Her latest assignment is to help an oil conglomerate lower its costs by unburdening itself of hundreds of local employees.

Concerned that his perpetually sour-faced daughter is living a loveless, unfulfilled life far from home, Winfried jumps on a plane and shows up unannounced in front of the oil company’s swank office building.

That’s pretty much the only actual plot point in Ade’s magical mystery ride.

The thing to realize is that Winfried, who enjoys being perceived as an incarnation of the Mad Hatter, is an amateur comedian with no real talent but a lot of goofy props. He shows up to see his daughter looking like a homeless dude with really large buck teeth. He stakes out the building and lays in wait for hours for just the right time to spring up in front of Ines and her fellow executives like some demented Jack-in-the-box. Of course, Ines is mortified and sends him packing.

That night, during a soiree attended by some of the town’s most important businessmen and their wives, Winfried appears again in an absurd black wig and introduces himself as a life coach named Toni Erdmann.

Toni Erdmann annoyed me to no end for its first 20 minutes. Both father and daughter come off as utterly unlikable. He was repulsive in a let-it-all-hang-out, Birkenstock-wearing sort of way, while she seemed unbelievably uptight, austere, and rude.

Yet the film quickly gets its hooks into you with its bizarre scenario.  

Winfried has one goal: to make Ines smile, to make her laugh, to make her open up. Rebuffed again and again, he comes up with ever-stranger ploys to get her attention.

Each time, the characters become more human to each other and to the viewer. Emotionally stunted in such different ways, they inspire our compassion and eventually our love.

The duo’s awkward tango fills up the better part of a weekend and will take them through a series of bizarre  encounters with a large swath of people from the executives down to the oil company’s blue-collar workers – the very men and women Ines is there to fire.

They take the two Germans into their confidences, they take them home for dinner and pour their hearts out.

Toni Erdmann has a running time of 162 minutes. It doesn’t have action scenes, plot twists, or subplots.

What it does  have are two extraordinary performers whose comic antics are so outrageous and whose shared emotional journey so rich, we end up falling in love with them.

But most of all we fall in love with filmmaking.

I left with a renewed faith in the medium’s ability to surprise and to astonish, and its power to transform.


Toni Erdmann

Directed by Maren Ade. With Trystan Pütter, Vlad Ivanov, Lucy Russell, Ingrid Bisu, Thomas Loibl, Peter Simonischek, Victoria Cocias, Sandra Hüller, Hadewych Minis, Michael Wittenborn. Distributed by Sony Pictures Classics.

Running time: 2 hours, 42 minutes.

Parent's guide: R (for strong sexual conetnt, graphic nudity, language and brief drug use).