Toni Erdmann, which has been Oscar nominated for this year’s best foreign language film, is a triumph of surreal, awkward, painful and poignant dark humour. Comparisons with The Office (the UK version) are not unjustified although this is a very singular beast.
Winfriend Conradi (Peter Simonischek) is a practical joker attempting to reconnect with his somewhat estranged daughter Ines (Sandra Huller), who works as a corporate strategist schmoozing oil company clients in Bucharest. He travels to Bucharest and starts to gatecrash her life, posing as her CEO’s (non-existent) life coach Toni Erdmann by sporting a wig and fake teeth. What follows really needs to be seen to be believed, particularly in two stand-out scenes; one involving an impromptu musical number, and the other a birthday party featuring quite possibly the funniest nervous breakdown ever put on film, for reasons that are too convoluted and hysterically funny to spoil.
In any other hands, this kind of material could have fallen flat on it’s face, but somehow writer/director Maren Ade manages to not only make this work, but make it work brilliantly, and at a surprising length too (the film runs for two hours forty-two minutes, but doesn’t feel a frame too long). Performances are outstanding, the documentary style direction superb, and quite honestly I strongly suspect this could win the big prize for foreign language film come Oscar night. It is worth adding warnings as this contains strong language, hard drug use, nudity and one eye-wateringly awkward sexual moment that whilst hysterically funny, will prove too much for some constitutions. This is absolutely not for the easily offended.
For everyone else however, Toni Erdmann is a raw, painfully honest tragic-comedy that explores its estranged father/daughter themes with surprising poignancy. The underlying message is laudable and more relevant than ever, namely that we have but a few years in which our children chase us for attention, and if we miss it, we could end up chasing them for attention in an attempt to make amends for past regrets. It also explores how the pursuit of career can bring profound unhappiness, and cause us to miss what is important in life. None of these insights are particularly new, but they are examined here in such a unique way that they feel very fresh.