The unique German film “Toni Erdmann” stood out at the Telluride Film Festival. Guest director Volker Schlondorff (“The Tin Drum”) accurately emphasized its originality by describing it as a cross “between Bergman and Borat”. The emotional relationships of the former are combined with the bizarre disguises of the later.
I very much enjoyed a conversation with the film’s lead actor Peter Simonischek at a press dinner sponsored by Sony Pictures Classics, the film’s distributor. Simonischek described the film to me as about a father (his character) who has drifted apart from his daughter and his attempt to get closer to her. The father uses practical jokes and a fake identity in attempting to reconnect. Simonischek spoke about his extensive stage experience of over 40 years in Germany, including performing in American plays.
In “Toni Erdmann”, Winifried (Peter Simonischek) is a divorced piano teacher who now lacks a student. His daughter Ines (Sandra Huller) is a workaholic corporate strategist. The time Ines has devoted to her career has given her little personal time and little inclination to spend it with her father. Ines’ latest posting is in Bucharest, a city adjusting to modern capitalism. The city now has a modern, generic mall where merchandise is too expensive for most citizens.
Winfried shows up in Bucharest disguised in an unruly wig and over-sized teeth. He tells his daughter’s work contacts that he is Toni Erdmann, a life coach at the same corporation as his daughter. Director Maren Ade who wrote the ingenious screenplay has said the teeth were inspired by a gag set she was given at the premiere of “Austin Powers”.
Ines is initially shocked at her father’s ruse but is forced to play along. She asks him “Are you trying to ruin me? … Have you gone insane?
As director and writer, Ade does a masterful job of combining eccentric comedy with an undercurrent of poignancy as the father tries to rebuild his relationship with his daughter. Ade said “Humor is his only weapon and he starts using it to the hilt.” The film is full of clever and unexpected twists. A highlight is a hilarious team-building exercise.
Simonischek and Huller create distinctive characterizations and play well off of each other. Winifred/Toni’s outrageous behavior contrasts well with Ines’ humorlessness.
“Toni Erdmann” is a remarkable film that remains absorbing and sustains humor throughout a running time of over 2.5 hours.
Volker Schlondorff had an insightful post-screening Q&A with Peter Simonischek. They mentioned as background that Germany and Romania have a consulting connection as Romania’s socialist economy moves into a capitalist system.
Simonischek said that Maren Ade writes a scene and gives the actors “lots of time to rehearse and make inventions”, adding to the singular style of the film. He added that in 56 shooting days, there was “not one bad day:”