**** (out of five)
German Filmmaker Maren Ade (go ahead, say it out loud a couple of times, have a chuckle, and get it out of your system) takes her time with her dramatic comedy Toni Erdmann. It’s an enormously rewarding work, but, at two hours and forty-two minutes, it demands you surrender to its rhythm.
Ines – the incredible Sandra Hüller, who, in a more just world, would be waking up to an Oscar nomination tomorrow – is an overworked, overstressed young exec for a German international consulting firm currently posted in Bucharest. When her eccentric father Winfried’s dog dies, he pays her a surprise visit, and, worried about her, goes to odd lengths to cheer her up, including assuming an alternative persona.
The film is a superb and deeply-layered examination of the special relationship between fathers and daughters (to which, on that level, I could relate and surrender myself). However, it’s much more than that. In its extended scenes of the delicate dance of (somewhat dubious) business in Eastern Europe, it examines the ongoing misogyny inherent in corporate life, the use of corporate “fall guys” – in the guise of consultancy firms – that let mega-corporations walk away from abuses with a clean press record, and the blatant exploitation of Euro-struggling nations by wealthy ones. There’s a perfect moment when Ines, having just made an important presentation in an upscale hotel’s business centre, stares out the window at a household across the road that probably doesn’t have electricity.
Peter Simonischek, a prolific and revered TV star who normally presents as a handsome silverback, lets it all hang out as Winfried, a true eccentric whose empathetic wisdom is buried under layers of diffidence. He and Hüller play off each other superbly, often in extended moments of awkward silence. The entire film is full of awkward moments, awkward scenes, awkward lives. It won’t be for everyone – and please, don’t go expecting a gazillion yuks – but, by its end, it is thoroughly engaging, moving and meaningful, a major film with a lot on its mind. Highly recommended.