Toni Erdmann | Maren Ade | Germany | 2016 | 162 minutes
The critically acclaimed Toni Erdmann still could make it to Madison, which makes it an interesting test case for AMC Theatre’s plans for Sundance Madison.
Update 2/21/17: Toni Erdmann will open at Sundance Cinemas on Friday, February 24.
Toni Erdmann has been a structuring absence for my sense of the year in film for 2016. I started hearing about it months ago as it played the festival circuit, and I saw it listed on many top ten lists at the end of the year. It ranked topped the Sight and Sound critics poll for 2016, ranked third (behind Moonlight and Manchester by the Sea) on the Village Voice critics poll, and locally J.J. Murphy included it on his list at the UW-Cinematheque blog.
It’s the kind of film that once was a shoo-in for at least a limited run in Madison. But as the foreign language market in town has shifted towards Asian popular cinema (as I documented in Isthmus), a nearly three-hour low-key German comedy about a quirky father-daughter relationship might be a harder sell for a local theatrical run. (Not one German-language film had a theatrical run in Madison in 2016.)
I’m cheating by declaring Toni Erdmann as “Missed Madison” because the official theatrical release was December 25, and given the patterns of a slow limited release (the number of theaters showing the film nationally just went up from 3 to 5), it was unlikely that Toni Erdmann would have made it to Sundance Madison within the calendar year. Indeed, trailers and promotional materials for the film have now appeared at Sundance. It is less clear whether the film will actually arrive, however, unless the Sony Pictures goes wide (we’re certainly not going to be theater number 6) or we wait a pretty long time.
So, I’ll kick off my contributions to the Missed Madison Film Festival with Toni Erdmann because it provides an interesting test case for the future of Madison’s foreign language market after AMC Theatres acquired Sundance Cinemas last year. Will the new Sundance follow up Paul Verhoven’s Elle with another hard-to-market European film, or will Toni Erdmann and similar films get lost in the shuffle if AMC puts Sundance Madison on the back burner after instructions to divest from some theaters in Madison?
I had a distinct disadvantage watching Toni Erdmann alone. Some of the humor is so idiosyncratic that I can imagine a wide range of responses to it—including silence. It would take just one person snickering in the corner for everyone to relax and realize that this is supposed to be funny, not just awkward and sometimes cruel. Add to that the fact that the real hook in the film, the introduction of “Toni Erdmann,” doesn’t come until the one-hour mark in a 162-minute film, and you might forgive audiences for wondering what was going on beyond a pair of character studies of an estranged father and daughter.
While the film after that hook is more broadly comic, from the very beginning Toni Erdmann showcases many dry and witty observations about the balance of power in personal and professional relationships.
The tone and that theme of power relationships is established in the opening scene involving a needlessly prolonged delivery of a package to Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek)—you very quickly start to feel sorry for the delivery man as he waits to perform his assigned task. Winifred is perfectly comfortable with making other people uncomfortable. He wears spooky makeup for a school band recital, but doesn’t see the need to take it off until after he arrives at family social gathering. He also doesn’t realize that the social gathering is a impromptu early birthday party for his visiting daughter, Ines (Sandra Hüller), a high powered oil company consultant, currently stationed in Bucharest. Winifred promises Ines to bring her a birthday present when he visits Bucharest closer to her birthday.
Instead, concerned about the well being of his hard working daughter, Winifred decides to visit Ines in Bucharest without warning, which throws Ines off her scheduled and structured life. The rest of the film is a battle of sorts as the unpredictable Winifred tries to reclaim his disciplined daughter from the highly driven corporate lifestyle that she has chosen for herself.
Beyond that family drama, Toni Erdmann also addresses the power struggles within that corporate world, as Ines asserts herself with those above and below her. She strives to move ahead in her career despite having to do things that will adversely affect many people (including mass layoffs). The two most interesting characters in this context are Anca (Ingrid Bisu), Ines’s seemingly mousey but actually equally driven intern, and Tim (Trystan Pütter), Ines’s colleague and lover (fuck buddy seems to be a more accurate if crude description). Ines and Tim’s sex scene, if you want to call it that, again could provoke a wide range of responses. But it also has many darkly funny things to say about corporate culture, gender, sexuality, and power.
I’m tempted not to discuss “Toni Erdmann,” because despite being the title of the film I was somehow quite surprised by his appearance, even though I should have seen him coming. It can’t be a spoiler if it is the title, right? Toni is Winifred’s alter-ego. As Toni he wears a wildly unkempt wig and ridiculous false teeth, and armed with a whoopee cushion he follows Ines around to introduce a degree of unpredictability in Ines’s corporate world where she must delicately navigate through different levels of power.
The most obvious genre to try to shoehorn Toni Erdmann into would be cringe comedy, which takes as its source of humor the painfully awkward moments in personal and social relationships (Curb Your Enthusiasm and Louie being prime examples). But calling Toni Erdmann cringe comedy (um, like I just did) would set up some false expectations, especially in terms of pacing and tone. Nothing is played for laughs, and it might take you a while to realize how crazy some scenes actually are. In the climactic sequence, in which Ines experiments with an unusual “team building exercise,” it took me a while to realize that I was watching a scene right out of a good old-fashioned screwball comedy. It’s crazy, but a slow-burn crazy.
That craziness extends to skewed logic of Ines’s corporate culture, and many have commented on the film in relation to globalization and the current world economic order. (NPR: the film “wields a savage critique of modern globalization culture and the way we sacrifice our shared humanity to survive in it.”) Ultimately, I think the film is far more interesting on the interpersonal level. But Winfried’s tactics do have many interesting socio-political consequences: one way to break through the corporate logic of globalization might be to battle it with absurdity.
I found the interpersonal dimension of the film more interesting primarily due to the fantastic lead performances from Simonischek and Hüller. While the film’s structure is episodic, the two actors do provide an emotional arc for the film, including some genuinely moving final sequences (as with the humor, other emotions sneak up on you).
I hope that in the coming days I can come back and update this review if Toni Erdmann does play theatrically in Madison. It should never come close to qualifying for the Missed Madison Film Festival.
Check out the other Missed Madison Film Festival reviews for Monday, January 23: