Toni Erdmann is the first great film I’ve seen in 2017 and will assuredly be on my end-of-year list. I think this is a film that seems easy to write. I mean, it’s just people talking and going to business meetings, right? The movie is so carefully observed, so funny at times (without spoilers, yet, the scene in the Romanian woman’s apartment, and then shortly thereafter, in Ines’ (Sandra Hüller) own apartment are unbelievable), and so risky.
Small SPOILERS below
On the surface Toni Erdmann looks simple. It’s high-key with a good amount of handheld. The locations are largely unremarkable (I’d be curious if director Maren Ade originally wrote this as taking place in Bucharest, or if tax credits had anything to do with that decision) and there aren’t any of the hallmarks of current cinematic trends like showy long takes or wide static frames (I watched The Tribe recently; in so many ways that film is the polar opposite of this one).
The script also might feel really simple. Father jokes, daughter works. Father jokes to daughter. Father and daughter reunite. But the complexity and richness of not only their relationship, but those of side characters’ (Ines’ assistant, and a Romanian woman at whose apartment they unexpectedly show up immediately come to mind) as well.
There’s plenty of nuance in the visual approach. An awkward moment between Ines and her father Winfried (Peter Simonischek) as they wait for an elevator to come up after having already said goodbye isn’t filled with punchlines, but rather with sadness in the slow pace.
As Ines paces in her office later her POV shows the street far below where, right next to the building, is a small dirt plot and a family whose colorful, non-tailored clothes certainly signal a different economic status. That the office building is so close also certainly signals the encroachment of this modernism on small communities (something that is directly echoed later when Winfried makes a friend while on an impromptu tour of an oil field).
Structurally screenwriters are always taught to establish things to use them later. We know at the very beginning of the script that Winfried is/was a musician. He teaches piano lessons (and has to get his former student to help him with a Google search – a nice way to show his refusal or inability to join a quickly changing society. Definitely a theme in the film, mirrored at the end when he rushes to get his camera instead of just snapping the photo from his phone), and leads a high school band in a farewell song.
So later, when Winfried and Ines sing a song for a surprised family of Romanians and her stolid demeanor is broken up by the emotion of the music and lyrics it’s funny for the unexpectedness, but also incredibly poignant and dramatic. Behind that song is a history of father-daughter music practices and recitals that we never see but quickly understand. That’s subtle establishing.
I loved Ade’s film Everyone Else. Like she does in that movie she takes risks here. The big climactic nude scene at the end could be only a ludicrous joke, but it’s totally deserved. Without the multiplying pressures of business life, without the sexist, offhand jokes that Ines endures, or without the view of life outside of her business existence, Ines’ inability to wriggle out of a tight dress while her doorbell buzzes would have little function. Instead it works as such a frustrated boiling point that her solution – nudity – feels less like an opportunity to get a bunch of naked people in a room and more like what it is: last resort and acceptance. It’s also absolutely hilarious.