Maren Ade’s third feature explores inter-generational difference through hilarious avant garde German comedy.
In an effort to rekindle the relationship with his daughter Innes (Sandra Hüller), joker father Winifred Conradi (Peter Simonischek) dons a set of false teeth to become Toni Erdmann. He follows her to Bucharest, where Innes has relocated on work matters. Incongruous amongst her professional world, Winifred strategically assumes a new identity to reacquaint himself with his daughter. The imposter catalyses a small crisis in her life which then concludes in a perfect final scene, where father and daughter are finally reconciled.
The film is delightfully theatrical. Both leads were stage actors (Winifred’s orthodontically-challenged alter-ego is all the more interesting since before he became an actor Simonischek was a dentist), and Ade makes use of absurd props, masks and self-conscious role-playing, while also stressing the importance of spontaneity. If I had one criticism, it would be that it is initially difficult to adjust from the simple pleasures of Toni/Winifred’s practical jokes to her reserved professionalism. His clownish humour jars against her distance and poise and his large cumbersome frame doesn’t quite fit next to her tailor-made couture. Emotion is channelled through our ambivalence towards both characters. While she is serious and career-obsessed, he is idolatrous and attention-seeking.
That all said, father and daughter eventually reach a common ground. There is one scene where Innes obtains a small foot injury from an unfortunate sofa-bed accident after housing her father for the night, and her consequent limp translates into a funny walk. Life father, like daughter. Mortification and embarrassment is both estranging and uniting. To purposefully humiliate oneself is to betray human weakness and compassionate strength. Comedy is, in this instance, disarmingly poignant.
Ade distinguishes herself as the auteur of human relationships commanding emotional transparency from Hüller and Simonischek; their feelings of alienation and estrangement are incredibly raw and there are a few scenes that even brought tears to the crowd at Cannes. Her past work has receives accolades for its depiction of relationships. Her first feature The Forest for the Trees won the Special Jury prize at Sundance and her second, Everyone Else the Grand Jury Prize in Berlin. This critically acclaimed film in competition for Best Foreign Language at the Academy Awards, its silverware imminent.