BFI London Film Festival: Toni Erdmann

Toni Erdmann
Directed by Maren Ade
Starring Sandra Hüller and Peter Simonischek
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by Richard Hamer

It’s a measure of the sheer quality of Toni Erdmann that it can be a 162 minute long film, and not drag; be a 162 minute long comedy, and not only remain funny throughout, but in fact become more crazed and inventive as it goes along. A huge part of this success is due to the incredible central performances by Sandra Hüller and Peter Simonischek, confirming – as if it needed to be – that if your characters are drawn well enough you can watch them, enraptured, doing not much at all for quite a long time.

Sandra Hüller plays Ines, a successful German businesswomen, living abroad in Romania negotiating an important contracting deal in the oil industry. Her life is stressful, isolating; moving constantly between parties and meetings, schmoozing and presenting, she has little in the way of free time, and has become increasingly isolated from her family. Enter Winfried – Peter Simonischek – her extremely unusual, prankster father. Concerned for her, he spontaneously decides to follow Ines to Bucharest, inserting himself into her life with his entirely unwelcome fart jokes, fake teeth and odd behaviour. The situation steadily escalates to the point where Winfried manufactures a bizarre alter-ego called ‘Toni Erdmann’ just to follow Ines around, to try and put a bit of fun back into her life.

What allows Toni Erdmann to succeed so brilliantly is the nuance, the even-handedness, with which it treats its premise. In less-skilled hands – in a more mainstream movie, perhaps – it could so easily have become the story of how the ‘Zany Father taught the Stuck-Up Daughter to let loose and Enjoy Life More’. Instead, we get something far richer. Ines’ career is important to her, a struggle for a voice against endless contradiction and workplace misogyny. And Winfried, for all his crazy jokes, is hardly more in touch with his feelings than his workaholic daughter. His humour is a shield against the uncomfortable, the fake teeth going in whenever the going gets tough.

Sandra Hüller and Peter Simonischek take this difficult material in their stride, through two of the most three dimensional performances in recent memory. Every look betrays a subtle sadness, the gulf between their two worlds beyond words. And – of course – it goes without saying that their sense of humour and comic timing are perfection, carrying off some truly surreal moments with aplomb.

At the Q&A immediately following the screening, both star Sandra Hüller and director Maren Ade reiterated that the core of the film’s comedic success was to not aim to be funny at all. It’s a common enough sentiment, but one given extra weight here: Toni Erdmann is a comedy of damaged people – lonely people – and when the belly laughs reach their heights it’s often when Ines and Winfried are reaching their limits. We laugh because we understand them, their actions and reactions portrayed with the earnestness of truth. We laugh because, at least in a small way, we are just like them.


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