While watching Maren Ade’s beguiling, hilarious and fascinating new film, Toni Erdmann, it’s hard not to think of all the ways the upcoming remake will inevitably quash what makes it so unique: The near 160 minutes running time will probably be shortened; the ending made less ambiguous; the sharp specificity of human interactions blunted to more palatable forms; and the strange terror of the concept glossed over for maximum hijinks. That’s not to say that a remake for English speaking audiences couldn’t be done and done well – getting Jack Nicholson out of retirement for the lead role is one hell of a catch – but the sheer dynamism of the original is something that cannot be replicated.
So many of us have that moment of growing up when you realise that your dad isn’t funny, and the silly faces and puns that made you roll in the aisles as a child are suddenly groan inducing and just too awkward to bear. Toni Erdmann takes that idea and runs with it to its most heart-breaking and often terrifying conclusion. Winifred (Peter Simonischek) is a music teacher and practical joker who seldom sees his workaholic daughter Ines (a fearless Sandra Hüller). While their love for one another is evident, it’s also clear that the two have very little in common, and his antics wear quickly on her patience. An attempt to strengthen their familial bonds backfires after Winifred pays a surprise visit to Ines in Bucharest where she works and his practical jokes fall flat as Ines scrambles to appease her corporate colleagues.
The hook of the story – Winifred’s donning of the Toni Erdmann guise to needle his way into Ines’s life – doesn’t materialize until close to halfway through the film’s extended running time, and it’s way less wacky than the trailers make it seem. Sure, there are scenes involving cheese graters, goofy false teeth, cocaine, handcuffs, Whitney Houston sing-alongs and lots of nudity, but those moments merely highlight the strangeness and acid-tongued nature of Ade’s focus. The film almost entirely eschews formula in favour of letting its central father-daughter relationship play out its journey, combining the mundane with the chaotic so naturally that it rings false.
Winifred and Ines are bound by family and love, but it’s also clear that the ways they push one another are wildly destructive and deeply sad. Winifred’s Toni routine, complete with the world’s worst wig and false teeth, is an obvious act of gaslighting, as he keeps up the routine even as Ines screams at him to stop. As a result, Ines is forced to play along and give as good as she gets, which ends up exposing some rather discomfiting truths about how the world sees women like her.
As a single-minded careerist in a firm that specializes in firing people for other companies, Ines has no choice but to be the proverbial bitch: Often the only woman in the room aside from her assistant, she must put up with frequent mansplaining and dismissals from her male colleagues, then be the flunky who accompanies the boss’s wife on a shopping trip to appease the highers-up. In one scene, Ines jokingly says she’s not a feminist, otherwise she wouldn’t put up with men like her boss, but the truth of that statement speaks volumes in every awkward pause during business meetings or every moment she blindly agrees with a senior colleague. When her dad, dressed as ridiculously as he can manage, starts tagging along, Ines quickly notices how much more seriously she’s taken when accompanied by a man, regardless of his obvious incompetence.
Language is a key force throughout Toni Erdmann. The German father and daughter communicate primarily through their native language, while English remains a default for business in a Romanian city where there seem to be few actual Romanians in positions of authority. Non-verbal communication unites the ensemble, as awkward glances and strained laughter proves universal.
The film’s length will remain a topic of contention for some viewers, but Ade’s refusal to rush proceedings allows the story to breathe naturally and for audiences to see Winifred and Ines navigate their tumultuous relationship. Each of them is so deftly characterized down to the tiniest detail – the teeth in Winifred’s pocket, the barely lived-in minimalist apartment Ines inhabits in Bucharest, the awkward shuffle the pair do while awaiting his exit. A shorter movie more concerned with fully exploiting that central hook would omit these pauses and quiet moments, but they’re part of what makes Toni Erdmann so fascinating and achingly precise in its methods. Go see it before it gets remade.