Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann

Toni Erdmann
dir: Maren Ade, Germany, 2016
Rating: 9.8


“And if, by chance, that special place / That you’ve been dreaming of / Leads you to a lonely place / Find your strength in love”
— The Greatest Love of All

There is an unforgettable scene towards the end of Leo McCarey’s screwball-comedy masterpiece The Awful Truth where the female lead, Lucy (Irene Dunn), is attempting to sabotage the relationship between Jerry (Cary Grant), her recent ex-husband, and Barbara (Molly Lamont), his new fiance. Lucy embarrasses Jerry deeply by showing up at Barbara’s house and pretending to be “Lola,” his drunken floozy of a sister (who does not exist in reality). In front of Barbara and her stuffy parents, Jerry has no choice but to go along with this ruse. Only the longer Lucy sticks around “in character,” the more obvious it becomes that Jerry actually appreciates the cleverness of her act. His exasperation slowly, almost imperceptibly, turns into admiration. As Lucy/Lola sings “My Dreams are Gone with the Wind,” to demonstrate her risque-circa-1937 nightclub routine, Jerry starts to smile in spite of himself, an indication that maybe these two nutcases really do belong together after all. Toni Erdmann, the third feature from the young German filmmaker Maren Ade (Everyone Else), is like this one great scene stretched to an epic running time of two hours and forty two minutes — and I mean that as a huge compliment. The film may be leisurely paced, especially for a comedy, but when the climactic, instant-classic “nude party scene” arrives, you know that Ade needed every one of those minutes in order to reach her sublime destination.

Toni Erdmann was by far the best movie I saw last year (I did not include it in my Top 50 Films of 2016 list because it only screened for the press in Chicago in December and does not open at local theaters proper until this Friday). The genius of Ade’s shaggy-dog story, which is written, directed and acted to perfection, is that it takes the dynamics of the screwball-comedy romance and perversely applies them to a father-daughter relationship (perhaps for the first time in the history of cinema): Ines (Sandra Huller) is a straight-laced and uptight German businesswoman (think Cary Grant in another screwball classic, Bringing Up Baby) whose world is turned upside down after repeated and unwelcome intrusions into her life by her opposite number — her goofball, music-teacher father, Winfried (Peter Simonischek, in the Katharine Hepburn role), from whom she has long been estranged. “Toni Erdmann” is Winfried’s even goofier alter-ego, a character with a bad wig and outrageous false teeth, a prankster persona through whom he tries to forge a new bond with Ines and help her break out of her self-constructed shell of alienation in the process. In many ways, the film is about Winfried/Toni teaching Ines to “learn to love herself,” to quote a certain classic Whitney Houston jam that is prominently featured on the soundtrack, and it is possible to enjoy the film purely on this level — as an emotionally rich character study: I would argue that the poignant father/daughter relationship at its core is as universal and timeless as that of Yasujiro Ozu’s Late Spring (although it is also given a refreshingly female-centric spin by its female writer/director).

But I think Toni Erdmann can also be seen as working on another level — one that makes it much more specific to our own era. The action plays out mainly in Bucharest where Ines has been sent on business by her international consulting-firm employer (her assignment is to recommend to the President of a Romanian corporation how many of his employees he should fire). It is implied that Ines’ high-pressure job is the reason why she has lost the simple ability to enjoy life and, in this respect, the film functions as a subversive and even angry critique of global capitalism. The most bizarre scene, and one that may initially puzzle some viewers, involves a sexual encounter between Ines and one of her clients in a hotel room, a tryst that she engineers because she senses it will be advantageous for her career. Disgusted with herself, Ines instructs the client, a shallow douchebag, to ejaculate on a petit four, which she then promptly and shockingly eats. Ines’ attempt to “control the narrative” of this empty sexual experience is her futile way of trying to make herself feel better about the fact that she is essentially prostituting herself. This is her lowest point, after which she will genuinely start to feel better once she reconciles with her father. But while the film ends with Ines in a better place, Ade is also smart enough to retain a hint of ambiguity. Ines is, after all, still working the same job, still peddling on the same cutthroat capitalist treadmill, only at another company. She puts Toni Erdmann’s false buckteeth into her own mouth but then takes them out again. Ines’ future, like that of our modern world, is uncertain. Did I mention this movie is hilarious?

Toni Erdmann opens in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre on Friday, January 27.


About michaelgloversmith

Filmmaker, author and Film Studies instructor. View all posts by michaelgloversmith

11 responses to “Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann

  • The Best Films of the Year So Far | White City Cinema

    […] “The poignant father/daughter relationship at its core is as universal and timeless as that of Yasujiro Ozu’s Late Spring (although it is also given a refreshingly female-centric spin by its female writer/director).” Review here. […]

  • My Top 50 Films of 2017 | White City Cinema

    […] 4. Toni Erdmann (Ade, Germany) – Music BoxThe film that made everyone’s best-of list last year didn’t receive its Chicago premiere until early 2017. Yep, I love it too and reviewed it on this blog at the beginning of the year here. […]

  • Sebin PS

    Toni Erdmann is a 2016 Drama/Comedy film by the German film director Maren Ade. Toni Erdmann is the alter ego of Winfried, the prankster father of the main character of the movie, Ines. The film is very polarizing to the audience in terms of whether or not it is a comedy or more of a drama. The underlying theme of the movie is undoubtedly sad – an estranged father trying to reconnect with his very “unhuman” daughter (Winfried asks whether Ines is ‘even human’ in disgust, while her coworkers compliments she is an ‘animal’ – for being so cold hearted but making excellent financial decisions for the company). Winfried tries to reconnect with Ines through invading into her life with pranks and jokes, and trying to teach her certain lessons in learning to take things less seriously and what truly matters in life.

    The scene where Ines makes her partner, who she considers inferior to her in ranks, ejaculate into a cupcake is – as said the blog post – bizarre. The purpose of the scene must be to show the kind of person Ines is. Earlier it is shown that although she is “dating” this fellow, Ines does not want others to know this – although it doesn’t matter at all to the management as no one really cares. She also doesn’t want him to be touching her in public or coming along with her as she makes a presentation to the company CEO who makes the ultimate decision. Ines is later treated by the same CEO very patronizingly. He assumes that since Ines is a woman, she must know all the shopping places and won’t have a problem taking his trophy wife out on shopping at the expensive mall nearby. These scenes shows the hierarchical abuse of power in the corporate world – Ines treats her subordinates the same way her superiors treat her, maybe worse.

    There is excellent use of contrast in the movie to show character dynamics and growth. There is a scene in the first-half of the movie that shows an awkward hug between Ines and Winfried. They hug too early to say goodbye and then awkwardly and silently wait for an elevator to arrive so the father can leave in it. The sad reality of the distance between the father and daughter is shown, but for the audience it’s a funny scene until you think about it a little. Then there is a very contrasting hug at the end of the movie when Ines realizes she loves her dad for what he has done for her and this time it is not half-assed and the two embrace each other like they mean it. The contrast between the two really shows how much the character has changed over the course of the movie.

  • Abbas Jaffri

    Toni Erdmann is one of the most influential movies I have seen so far. It is a comedy movie but it tells a grieving story of a father who like to play practical jokes and trying very hard to spend some time with his hard working daughter. When he was not successful, he started to disguise himself as a stranger just to be around her. These incidents with her daughter create an awkward humor in the movie but also shows the loneliness of an old person. His daughter is not happy with this idea. Also, she feel embarrass when ever he is around. This is a true depiction of our society at some level where elders try to stay close to their offsprings but younger generation often seem to avoid them and also feel embarrassed when they are around. Specially the teenagers. The movie has some intense and unpleasantly funny scenes. Especially the nude scenes where Ines organize an office party at her house but get so frustrated by the pressure of her work and life that she start hosting her guests naked and tell them that it is a nude party, they need to take off their clothes as well if they want to stay. Usually nudity creates a sexual appeal to cater the desire of the audience with such content. Mostly of male audience. Despite the sequence of those scenes is long but it was not sexual in any manner instead it was awkward and hilarious. May be it is because the movie is directed by a female director (Maren Ade) and she does not want to objectify women but rather use it to create a different atmosphere to show the frustration and anger of the character. The cinematography and acting is fascinating but I find the movie a bit longer. Overall a great piece of work!

  • Jose Colon

    So far out of all of the movies that have been featured in this class, I would have to say Toni Erdmann is on the top three on my list and the movie I found myself relating to more so often than not. Since I was prepped before the movie and given some insight on the background of the film, It was easier for me to understand the relationship between Ines and Winfried, being as complicated as it was. The Father, Daughter relationship portrayed in Toni Erdmann was quite on point. I thought Maren Ade did a wonderful job in capturing the small moments between Ines and Winfried or “Toni”, it made the long quiet moments in between scenes make sense. I usually find quiet moments awkward in movies if they aren’t integrated into the film properly.

    I had mentioned earlier how I had found myself relating to this film. The main aspect of the film, which I found to be the relationship between Ines and Winfried. I had an uncle I use to be very embarrassed of because he would always fuck with me and pull all these jokes on me which made our relationship like Ines and her fathers. Eventually I was not looking forward to family parties and gatherings because i just did not want to deal with his non sense. I totally understood Ines. I was actually relieved when she was finally giving in to Toni and his jokes.

    In my humble opinion, Ines was a unique character. The decisions she made in the movie could be questionable to others but to some she may just have been living a little. Sure she may have seemed weak but who doesn’t at times. I like how she was loosening up throughout the film, it was nice to see a positive transformation in the film. All in all, Toni Erdmann was a phenomenal film with a unique set of characters and an interesting plot line.

  • Ken K

    “Toni Erdmann” is a German-Austrian comedy-drama film directed by Maren Ade and released in 2016. The movie follows a father and daughter whose outlook on life are very different and as a result, they clash throughout the film. The father is a music teacher while the daughter is a businesswoman that works a lot. At first, she is reluctant to meet up with him but she eventually relents. Afterwards, the father repeatedly starts inserting himself into her life more, even adopting a fake persona and accompanies her to her job. Throughout the film, it seems like the father is trying to gauge whether she is really happy at her job and lifestyle, and once he realizes that she’s not, he tries to convince her that maybe the way she lives is wrong. Naturally, this results in her and the father fighting and arguing throughout the film. Towards the end, she seems to realize that she doesn’t like how she is living this corporate lifestyle, and when she hosts a party for her coworkers, she makes it a “naked party”, effectively turning off all of her coworkers. Towards the end, she has seemed to reconcile with her father and has made a career shift, hopefully for the better, although it doesn’t seem to have a clear resolution. The main themes that I took from watching the film were commentary on capitalism and the pursuit of happiness. The father doesn’t think she’s happy and tries to steer her towards her own path towards happiness and fulfillment. It’s also a commentary on capitalism and the corporate business world because throughout the film, it seems to show this lifestyle and job in a negative light, and shows how it is stressing out the daughter by doing this kind of job. Overall, I found it to be pretty enjoyable, although I don’t think it was very comedic, even though it’s supposed to be a comedy/drama film. It had some funny moments, but it was more awkward moments that had humor in them. It seemed more like a slice of life story, a film about life in general to me.

  • Kevin Sudie

    This film was an interesting take on the father-daughter relationship while also commenting on the state of the global economic market’s treatment of workers. However, I think the main theme of this movie is the use of humor to cure sadness. Early in the movie, Winfried is covered in skeleton face paint for a children’s play at his school. This odd, macabre moment is an allusion to the death of his dog later in the movie, which causes Winfried much sadness and to want to be with his daughter. It is not until he starts following his daughter, Ines, that he discovers she is not happy at her current job. He then takes it upon himself to help her, but in fact he is actually helping himself forget about his dog and death in general. The open-endedness of the state of Ines, the fact that she remains in the same business and still basically has no friends or love interests, goes to show that the main beneficiary of the Toni Erdmann character is actually Winfried himself.

  • Sana Lalani

    “Toni Erdmann” is probably one of my favorite movies that I have watched in this class so far. Although the pacing was similar to that of “Neighboring Sounds,” I enjoyed more than “Neighboring Sounds.” I think it is because I enjoyed the plotline. I’m glad that it was not rushed because each scene was important to the character build up as well as the development between Ines and herself, Ines and her coworkers, and Ines and her father.
    The film was very different than how I had expected it to be. For some reason, I expected the film to be more lively, but I think that is because I’m used to Hollywood comedy. I think we are so used to seeing a set type of comedy, so that is what I expected to see. None the less, I thought the film was funny. Therefore, I agree that the film was a comedy, however, I also thought it had an element from Bollywood cinema which was the concept of multiple genres and tonal shifts. An example would be the scenes from the day of Ines’ birthday party. During Ines’ breakdown, it was funny, but when she went out to see her father who was in that brown suit, it was pretty dramatic.
    I agree that Ade left the ending with ambiguity because I personally thought that Ines was in a better place now. Just by her demeanor because she seemed more calm with herself than she was stressed. In the beginning, it seemed she was carrying a weight on her shoulder wherever she went, but in the end she seemed more relaxed. Although she is working at a new place, I think she is more knowledgeable of who she is and her relationship with her father has improved. I think she has changed as a person because when she saw her father down, she put in his false teeth to kind of lighten up his mood after the funeral. However, as discussed in class, someone else interpreted her as not having changed at all since she is still doing the same job. I on the other hand beg to differ. I think she has changed, and I do not think it was the job that was the problem, but more so who she was working with and if she was able to move up from her position. Also, her underlying issue was within herself and how she always cared for what others thought and expected from her. Her coworker, Gerald, was not very supportive of her leveling up, and her clients looked down upon her efforts. It could be that the same could happen to her in the new workplace, but I think the difference is that she cares less of what others think of her.

  • Mark Badel

    Toni Erdmann had everything going for it to be a bad movie. A screwball comedy with the epic runtime of 2 hours and 42 minutes. I expected it to be some sort of foreign film with inside jokes us in the states would not understand. I was just hoping that every minute of it was interesting and that I would not be left behind bored halfway through. To my delight, none of the negatives I expected came true. The runtime was absolutely perfect and every single minute of it was exciting and kept you hooked in. The jokes that were used in the film were very easy to understand and there were no inside jokes that only Europeans would be in the know. To my absolute surprise, the comedy format worked well in the epic runtime, nothing felt dragged out or useless. I honestly feel that every single minute of the film was needed, if anything cut out, it would seriously ruin the effect that the movie has on the audience.

    You get so attached to the characters while watching this movie. Perhaps it was the ingenious directing and editing, or the incredible acting. You could seriously feel the emotion coming from Ines’ father Winfried. You know right away that he seriously cares about his daughter and her wellbeing and he goes VERY out of his way to make her feel happy and understand the meaning of life. At first she doesn’t take and you will probably hate her for the most part of the movie. Eventually though she becomes a character that you really like.

    After hearing that this movie will be adapted into a Hollywood film, I really think they will screw it up. I don’t believe it will be directed by Maren Ade, but even if it was the film would most likely have to be cut down very short. I honestly wholeheartedly believe that this will ruin the film. You need that extra time to learn about the characters and see the two different worlds they live in. There are so many precious moments in this movie that are only precious because of the buildup before them. I guess the only good thing that will come out of this movie being made in Hollywood is it will deter other foreign directors from selling the rights to their film to Hollywood.

  • Robert Shaf

    I did not know what to expect going into Toni Erdmann seeing that it was almost three hours long. After watching it, I can definitely say that every minute of it was essential for the movie. I think the movie was definitely a comedy. I thought the father’s pranks were pretty humorous and it made it even funnier when other people didn’t enjoy them. However, the movie was also pretty sad. Throughout the entire movie, an estranged father was trying to reconnect with his daughter who doesn’t really have a heart. Ines has no problem firing people to make the company better off and she doesn’t want to spend time with her father, Winfried.
    Even though I think Ines didn’t really change by the end of the movie, her relationship definitely grew with her father and they had a closer bond by the end. I believe she started to change her relationship with Winfried when she started going along with his alter-ego, Toni Erdmann. This also made the father feel better since he started to connect with his daughter more, even though in an odd way. I think the climax of the movie was when Ines hugged her dad in the park. This was when they truly developed a closer bond and a better relationship. This scene was huge for the development of both characters.
    When we discussed how they’re making Toni Erdmann into a Hollywood film, I don’t really know how to feel about that. I really like Jack Nicholson as an actor and I think he would play the father perfectly. However, I don’t think Hollywood’s version will run almost three hours long and that’s going to take away a lot of the substance of this version of the movie that made it special. I’ll still probably see it but I’m going into it with lower expectations since I think they will dumb it down a lot.

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