When asked to reduce Toni Erdmann to its essential outline, the German actor Sandra Hüller, who plays Ines, described it as: “a father visits his daughter at her workplace”. But part of the tremendous appeal of Toni Erdmann is its resistance to such plot condensation. Instead, the complex relationship between Ines and her father Winfried unfurls slowly across 162 minutes of sprawling narrative that took director Maren Ade two years and two pregnancies to write.
The result is not an aesthetically beautiful film. Its shots are bleak, pared down and almost entirely devoid of music. While this gives the audience little relief from the difficult and often tragic experiences of its protagonists, as they move between washed-out meeting rooms and corporate lunches, it also provides the perfect ground for the quiet and deeply unusual interrogation of father-daughter relationships that earned Toni Erdmann an Oscar nomination for best foreign film this year.
The death of his beloved dog instigates piano teacher and frequent prankster Winfried’s spontaneous flight to Bucharest in an attempt to reconnect with his relentlessly successful daughter Ines, who works there as a consultant. As the film progresses, Winfried’s appeals to his daughter’s affections become increasingly surreal and outlandish, situated as they are against the backdrop of the platitudinous businesses lunches and events of Ines’s consultancy. Indeed, much of the film’s ingenuity comes from Ade’s structuring of the narrative around a series of seemingly rigid binaries. The unconventional, slouching figure of Winfried, played by Peter Simonischek, initially appears the complete inverse of Hüller’s portrayal of high-powered Ines. The landscape shifts from rural Germany to the commercial centre of the Romanian capital, and then between its expensive, monochrome hotels and shopping malls and the older, more lived-in parts of the city. Still, the most extraordinary of these doublings is Winfried’s own transformation into Toni Erdmann, a caricature ‘life-coach’ complete with fake teeth and an ill-fitting wig.
The inspiration for Winfried’s other-self is the 1980s American cult figure and entertainer Andy Kaufman, footage of whom Ade watched for hours while writing the film. A practical joker like Winfried, Kaufman created a fictional alter-ego called Tony Clifton, who became a vessel for Kaufman to indulge in notoriously unfunny and often verbally abusive stand up performances. Like Clifton too, Winfried’s clownish and often painfully irritating double often fails to bring humour to Toni Erdmann. Rather, the comedy of the film grows unexpectedly out of moments depicting its characters’ deepest despair: when Winfried begins to doubt his ability to reconnect with his daughter, and when Ines at last succumbs to her father’s outrageousness, collapsing Ade’s initial binaries.
Toni Erdmann is an absurd Commedia dell’arte type character, intruding upon his daughter’s corporate lifestyle and causing her endless humiliation. Nevertheless, it is his presence that in turn exposes the absurdity of Ines’s business world. To her surprise, Erdmann is rapidly subsumed into Ines’s colleagues ritualistic swapping of business cards and displays of formality. When at a depressing nightclub topless businessmen gyrate to monotonous techno and pop bottles of champagne against a soft background of scantily clad women, Winfried and Ines sit at a distance from the action on opposite sofas, one wonders which world is truly the more ridiculous performance. It is in scenes like this that Ade can coldly critique the vacuous realities of globalisation that is such a marked departure from the gorgeous, lavish excesses of big businesses portrayed in American films – even those purportedly exposing their evils.
Toni Erdmann’s impact on Ines’s life plays out like a slow collision. Though it takes time for her to respond with her own form of play, the most joyful and genuinely comedic scene of the film has Ines at its core. Where Winfried masks himself as Erdmann, Ines unmasks herself, answering the door for her birthday party entirely nude. This is not a sexualised scene; it is not provocative. Instead the conviction of her performance means her clients not only are unable to challenge her nudity, but also feel obliged to follow suit. To one colleague particularly nonplussed colleague, she declares: “Nothing’s wrong, Gerald. I have nothing on.” It is a witty reversal of the Emperor’s New Clothes; only Ines seems to realise that her nudity is funny and it makes for a surprising and wonderful moment.
Though the film is ostensibly a critique of the global corporations that Ines’s consultancy is modeled on, Ade does not dictate how the audience should respond to Ines’s position within this sphere. The pressure that Winfried places on his daughter through existential and impossible questions like “Are you a bit happy here?” or “Are you really human?” leaves one questioning whether a son would ever be subject to such scrutiny. But if we are to criticise Winfried’s patriarchal desire for Ines to work less and spend more time in the domestic sphere, should we conclude that Ines is empowered in her position? Certainly, there are moments where Ines seems to fit Sheryl Sandberg’s advocating for a kind of “liberal feminism” wherein women must “lean in” to reach the top in corporate empires alongside white-male elites. But while Ines evidently falls into this category within her global business aspirations, she is also more than this. Indeed, it is the absolute bravery of Toni Erdmann that Ade allows her characters to start as stock figures – “she is a businesswoman; he is an idiot” – and slowly, gently gives them the opportunity to progress beyond these models. The courageous nudity scene is a pivotal moment in this progression. Ines derobes herself of her business suit, subverting and satirising the power structures within her corporation, which are themselves built around hollow formalities. Similarly, a potentially conventional office romance between Ines and a rather bland colleague is turned on its head when Ines refuses to sleep with him and instead, hilariously, persuades him to masturbate onto an attractive selection of petit-fours.
Still, Ade leaves the audience with no ultimate resolution. Ines refuses the model of domesticated daughter that Winfried imagines for her near the start of the film and continues up her career ladder. It is not perfect, but it is her decision. Her father’s eventual effect on her life is much smaller. She takes the fake teeth from his pocket and engages, briefly, in his comedic act. Winfried goes back and gets his camera so as to capture this moment, but the film ends before he returns. Where Ade could have ended Toni Erdmann with a triumphant hug between father and daughter, it goes on and life goes on.