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Forget what you know about German films being bleak and say hello to Toni Erdmann. Toni Erdmann is already on my shortlist for favourite film of the year. At its core is a story about the everyday extraordinary that of the dynamic between adult father and daughter. Yet in this multi-layered dramatic comedy from writer/director Maren Ade we also explore: family, love, splattered with a little social commentary on multi-national companies using and disposing of local workforces and observe the excruitaitng, yet brilliantly observed thing we all do – life!
The film takes place in Germany and Romania and as such is in both German and then English. Yes even for those of you who recoil in horror like a vampire from the sun, about 10 minutes into the film you forget about the subtitles. The principal actors Peter Simonischek who plays Winfried and his alter ego Toni Erdmann and Sandra Huller who plays his daughter Ines dominate the screen and are both captivating.
The basic story focuses on Ines who’s a career woman, with a complicated love life who is trying to maintain her position in a male dominated company. She is the best at what she does -essentially making people redundant in order to generate the most money for the consultancy and multi-national company that employs that consultancy. Her father Winfriend just wants to see Ines happy but well she finds him exasperating.
One memorable scene is when Winfried arrives unannounced to surprise his daughter. She asks him how long he plans to stay. He, with a wry smile, replies a month. There is a pause as her eyes dart back and forth and then he replies – “that’s real terror that is”. The film is filled with so many witty observations.
Why does it work? Yes, the father daughter dynamic has been done to death in a sweet way as in Father of the Bride and most recently Little Miss Sunshine for the quirky family thats not quite perfect and you wonder, really wonder what is going on. This film explores the archaeology of the family as well as showing the father/daughter story in all its raw, visceral glory – it is happy, sad, good, bad and at times downright dangerous to know. Just how do we get to an age where we think we can’t deal with our parents but yet (insane laughter please) realise that we’re in danger of turning into them. Why is Maren Ade’s film so good because it is interlaced with humour at every turn – you’re not laughing at the characters but the situation and that is what creates the connection and empathy. Also the central characters aren’t always likeable and that’s what makes them human and even more appealing.
There are so many more stand out moments but the rendition of The Greatest Love of All written by George Benson and sung by both him and Whitney Houston is given a spotlight moment here. The use of the song is similar to how Steve McQueen used New York, New York in his film Shame when it was sung by Carey Mulligan. Oh and the party scene…I will leave it at that.
Toni Erdmann packs an emotional gut punch in a deftly written script. It is long though at nearly 3 hours but honestly the time flies by. As previously stated you will laugh and cry in equal measure and at many moments squirm in the knowledge that you’ve been that close to losing it with a parent, colleague and yourself!