ON IN CINEMAS
Peter Simonischek plays Winfried Conradi, a man living in Germany who is the father of super-busy consultant Ines (Sandra Muller). He has a fondness for playing strange practical jokes despite his age and ill health. For instance, when a hapless online delivery man comes to his door he pretends that it’s his identical twin brother ordering pornography, slips back inside to don a set of false teeth and dressing gown before coming out again and pretending his hobby is explosive deactivation - and the package is a letter bomb. In reality it’s his pacemaker.
After briefly catching Ines at a family dinner party on her way from one contract in Shanghai to another in Bucharest he comes home to find that his dog (looking as old and shaggy as he does) has passed away. This naturally results in him having personal crisis, so decides to make his way over to Romania to spend some quality time with her. While his perpetually rushed-off-her-feet daughter is taken aback by his arrival she initially accepts him tagging along to various business events and soirees. There’s just one condition: he stays away from Henneberg (Michael Wittenborn), an important figure whom she is trying to impress in the oil company she is consulting for. He promptly breaks that rule and ends up charming the guy enough to be invited for a drink at an upmarket bar. He quickly outstays his welcome with his daughter however due to his increasingly embarrassing japes in front of her colleagues and contacts. In order to stay in proximity with her he decides to take to a disguise. He dons his false teeth again along with a frankly ridiculous wig and becomes a fictional persona - a life coach by the name of Toni Erdmann.
This German/Austrian/Romanian comedy-drama (shot mostly in Bucharest, Romania) is nearly 2 and 3/4 hours long yet doesn’t feel boring at any stage. Most of the main cast and production credits are Austro-Germanic and yet the filming style is actually quite close to that of contemporary Romanian cinema such as The Death of Mr Lazarescu by Cristi Puiu. There’s an extensive emphasis on long takes that trail the characters around in an almost obsessive manner, getting under their skin and making us live their lives. There’s the entirely on-location shooting with minimal artificial devices such as a score (beyond the background music in some scenes). It is perhaps a little glossier, but it certainly has that overall feel. More of the camera’s gaze is, notably, on Ines rather than on Winfried. We get to experience the insanely hectic, smartphone-dictated schedule of this modern businesswoman and all of the pretentious rituals in her world - forced/fake socialising, an impenetrable slew of buzzwords spouted between suit-wearing middle managers, slick nightlife where “letting your hair down” frequently involves expensive bacchanalia such as champagne and cocaine, an overweening obsession with “keeping up appearances” and so on. She’s visibly burning herself out despite the semblance of living some kind of high life in plush hotels, spas and dark bars illuminated with futuristic video displays.
Simonischek’s Winfried/Toni however - after his introductory section in Germany - frequently comes and goes. When he does appear, he is often consigned to the background of shots. He’s almost like the shark in Jaws; his presence makes so much impact during the film that it’s generally used sparingly. Within the overbearingly anal world that Ines inhabits his behaviour is so outrageously out of left field that he can’t help but make the audience laugh again, and again, and again. At the same time, ironically, he’s actually no more absurd than much of the meaningless and arbitrary business jargon and rituals that take place in that world. Moreover, as the film goes on it becomes clear that Ines, despite being understandably embarrassed by his frequent, stalker-like interventions in her life, starts to catch onto this and realise that there’s more of value than her over-cluttered, career-orientated lifestyle.
The choice of Romania as a filming location is also quite canny. We see the contrasts between the ultra-slick post-communist world of the new rich and swarming investors looking to cash in on its economic boom - and at the same time the dusty streets and ramshackle homes of the older (and usually poorer) sections of society who, paradoxically, turn out to be infinitely more genuine and generous than the slick suit-wearers (literally) rising above them in towering office blocks and hotels. These latter sections of society also parallel Winfried who (albeit in his own odd, hilariously inane way) is arguably the only one with a genuine love towards his daughter.
The whole reaffirming of a parent-offspring relationship is not a new idea, but here it’s done with such a natural, unforced dynamic (despite the obvious big laugh comedy moments) that it feels fresh and honest. If there’s one criticism here it’s that a couple of these comedic moments resort to rather unnecessary gore/gross-out humour. Even these don’t stick out too much however since they are brief blips amongst so many brilliantly-handled scenes.
Highlights? Well, perhaps it’s best not to spoil them.
Runtime: 162 mins
Dir: Maren Ade
Script: Maren Ade
Starring: Sandra Muller, Peter Simonischek, Michael Wittenborn, Thomas Loibl, Trystan Putter, Ingrid Bisu, Hadewych Minis, Lucy Russell