“You can really learn a lot from parents.”
Toni Erdmann is a thing of rare beauty. To be sure, it’s not an easy sell: it’s a German-Austrian film that clocks in at three hours with a plot that, on paper, doesn’t sound like anything new. But those hours fly by, and director Maren Ade turns what would be trite in anyone else’s hands into something sublime.
Winfried (Peter Simonischek) and his daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller) have drifted apart. It’s not some drama-induced cataclysmic rift — it just is what it is, the kind of distance that can form with nothing else but time. They’re polar opposites, too, at least on a surface level. Ines is almost never seen in anything but a tailored suit, whereas Winfried looks the part of an aging hippie. When he shows up to visit her unannounced, things are tense at best, and he curtails his trip when it becomes clear that things aren’t going to get any better. As she complains to her friends later that night, calling it the worst experience of her life, an object in the background slowly materializes, drawing closer and closer until it becomes absolutely obvious: the thing approaching their table (not unlike a shark to prey) is Winfried, decked out in a horrible wig and false teeth. Or rather, it’s not Winfried — it’s Toni Erdmann.
We don’t often talk about unconditional love, and when we do, it’s never in the context of how difficult (and often deeply frustrating) it can be. In fairness, Winfried and Ines don’t discuss it outright, either, but what words could be more effective than the moments and gestures that pass between them? And those moments in Toni Erdmann are infinite. There’s a beat early on in which Ines watches her father’s taxi pull away, presumably to take him to the airport. We watch along with her, the camera framing her shoulders, and as the car disappears, her shoulders begin to shake. She’s crying, even though she’d been so stony just moments before. It’s a private, intimate moment — Winfried will never know exactly how she felt — and Ade keeps it that way. We never see Ines’ expression. It’s a gut punch of a scene, and Toni Erdmann only gets stronger from there.
It’s worth noting that there’s no music in the film, either. The only instances of it are diegetic. We’re left with conversations, awkward silences and all, that become thornier and more cringe-inducing as Toni throws Ines’ life into increasing disarray. To Ade’s credit, she doesn’t seek out sympathy on behalf of either character; things play out without concession, walking the precarious and sometimes near-indistinguishable line between selfishness and selflessness. It can’t be denied that Winfried’s story is difficult to reconcile with. He’s spurred to visit Ines after the death of his dog, his sole companion, but his consequent actions as Toni undermine Ines’ work and her position. But he’s not acting in a bubble. To quote Ade herself, “Winfried isn’t doing this performance in his own world and being watched by Ines, but rather he’s doing it for her.” Ines, too, isn’t as kind as she could be (though she obviously doesn’t owe anyone that), in a manner that ought to be familiar to anyone who’s ever struggled to understand a parent.
Though the plot’s machinations starts to venture into surreal territory, it never feels anything but grounded due to Simonischek and Hüller’s superb work. In fact, it’s the strangest moments that pack the biggest emotional punch and feel the most real. But maybe that’s only fitting. There’s nothing in the movie that’s crazier than the notion that you will always love the people you’re related to.