You need to be patient with “Toni Erdmann.”
This nearly three hour-long German film goes nearly an hour as just a modest family comedy with some awkward humor before finding its voice. It’s only with a complete and sudden surprise does the movie’s naturalistic, deadpan filmmaking get thrust into full on anarchy. It’s worth the wait.
Maren Ade’s film milks the absurd from the ordinary, a loving comedy between a father and daughter grown estranged. And yet “Toni Erdmann” overcomes its Hollywood log line by establishing a tone of suspense and uncertainty. The film is rarely manic, but the set pieces defy predictability.
Ade sets the mood immediately with a simple sequence of a mailman delivering a package. A husky, elderly man with shaggy gray hair named Winfried (Peter Simonischek) comes to the door and says he has no knowledge of a delivery, but casually drops a hint that the package might be a mail bomb. Winfried runs to fetch his “brother” while we get to watch the mailman squirm. Winfried returns dressed in a dirty brown wig, shirtless in an open robe, sunglasses and for some reason wearing handcuffs on one arm.
For a moment you might think that Winfried really does have a brother. And this madness gets left unexplained other than with the knowledge that Winfried loves practical jokes that to the untrained eye barely seem like gags at all. What’s more, his jokes seem to run from barely executed, like when he decides to wear a smidge of face paint to a dinner party, to having immeasurable resources that allow his jokes to defy logic.
Winfried decides to visit his daughter Ines (Sandra Huller) while she’s on a business trip, fearing that she’s overworked and that he’s lost touch. At a networking event, he obliviously says to one of her important clients that she’s in fact so busy that he’s decided to hire a backup daughter. Simonischek so plainly delivers the line, never mugging to the camera and always maintaining a reserved register that the client actually believes it.
“That was real fear,” he says to Ines when he jokingly suggests he’ll be remaining with her for the next month. Ade constantly toys with emotions, and every moment amounts to cringe worthy astonishment. Just how serious will Winfried be about his jokes? How much mayhem and chaos can a tiny incident cause?
Take for example one of the film’s best scenes, in which Ines meticulously tries to prepare her apartment for an office party. In her attempt to make everything perfect, her blouse’s zipper gets stuck and she’s caught without an outfit. And in a last second moment of desperation that underscores how anxious she’s become, she welcomes her first guest topless. When the second arrives, she’s already made a mess of things, so why not lose the panties too?
Another film might be content to just be funny, but as the awkwardness and tension slowly builds over “Toni Erdmann’s” three hours, Ade evolves the story into one of a woman gradually suffering a nervous breakdown. The film takes its time as Ines seems forever flustered, and in the end it asks a profound question, “How are we supposed to hang onto moments?” Such revelations about life don’t come in shorter, more madcap comedies.
You may finally be wondering where “Toni Erdmann” gets its title. That’s a whirlwind of a surprise best kept until you’ve seen this masterful, hilarious film.