Toni Erdmann full movie review - To Act, to Mask, to Break Free
Maren Ade's third feature film "Toni Erdmann" (2016) has received an equal amount of tears and laughs at many film festival screenings ending with standing ovations.
A maturely crafted and emotionally thought-through psychological treatise on the enduring theme of child-parent relationships, "Toni Erdmann" tells about an obsessive jester (Peter Simonischek) desperately trying to reconnect with his estranged, dead-serious daughter (Sandra Hüller) who spends more time on the phone and business meetings than with friends or family. This attempt turns into a strange play with the father devising a character called Toni Erdmann to help his daughter which will potentially result in the daughter taking off her social mask. The film is a welcome surprise from German cinema, which has lacked international acclaim for a few years, and a pleasant viewing experience as an eccentric combination of the absurd and the mundane as well as the tragic and the comic.
The brief synopsis given above might already reveal the gist of the humor in the film, but Ade's comedy does not fall short of insight. The main source for the humor is, of course, the dynamics between the father and the daughter as well as the father's awkward maladjustment to his daughter's professional habitat. This humor, relying on the superb performances of the two leading actors, is essentially supported by Ade's restraint style varying between such opposites as a tranquil continuity created by longer takes and more classical editing of shots with reverse shots, a hand-held camera as a realist denominator and a stripped soundscape as a stylized denominator where distant and quiet off-screen sounds are almost as conspicuous as a traditional music score is by its absence, spaces characterized by cold sterility (the daughter's apartment in Bucharest looks more like a hotel room than a home) opposed to blue-collar spaces with warmer light and color. Overall, a big part of the humor takes off from the fact that Ade's ironic narrative seems to keep its distance to the father's jests and jokes. There is a seeming coldness to Ade's approach. The jokes might make the spectator laugh or chuckle, while remaining to dangle in the void against Ade's stylistic program which gives no response to their echo of quietude.
Such subtlety is perfect for Ade's themes which require both duration in time and width in space. The secrets and untold memories, the many repressed feelings and desires, covered longings and missed opportunities are psychological phenomena which by their nature do not disclose themselves which is why Ade's decision to make a longer and less obvious film is, to put it simply, brilliant. It is as if Ade's narrative picked up by chance a recurring cycle in the human life resulting in unhappiness over and over again. This cycle is treated, above all, through the theme of acting from the daughter's constant need to play someone else, so to speak, in the business world while losing her true self to her father's corresponding need to put on a show which, however, can also work as an opportunity for breaking free from the act for the daughter.
While all this might make some accuse Ade of abandoning the social world at the expense of discussing the petty life crises of the upper middle class, it should be noticed that "Toni Erdmann" never falls short of recognizing social themes of a topical nature. The capitalist business world of the daughter's everyday life appears as distant and bleak where people lose themselves into the rat race of planning a career and the superficial mastery of the constantly changing languages (German, Romanian, English, French). The linguistic plurality correlates with existential emptiness as the words, which have been learned by heart a few weeks before important business meetings, fail to realize something real, causing one to become more and more distant from the timid shadows of one's identity. The social themes are there, but always filtered through Ade's main point of thematic focus.
In terms of both the question of the society and humanity, Ade refuses to give us answers. If the father's fictional creation of Toni Erdmann appeared as a parody of contemporary self-help and life coach culture, Ade's "Toni Erdmann" would remain a creation without self-assured help. There is act and emancipation but no absolute resolution. Instead of such an outcome, Ade looks at life in all its, both comic and tragic, absurdity without shielding a private part or averting an eye.