[Dir. Maren Ade)
[5 out of 5 stars]
[Image courtesy of Madman Entertainment]
Sometimes it takes juvenile play to reveal the absurdity of adult realities. In Maren Ade’s three-hour long German comedy (don’t let that description scare you), she brings together a touching and hilarious father-daughter story against the backdrop of the stifling corporate world. She then tops it off with a killer final act that would rouse any audience to hysterics. Maren Ade masterfully weavesvarious themes, contrasting moods and incongruous characters in a subtle but effective way that it didn't become apparent to me the first time I saw it just how beautifully complex it is. It's a kind of movie that grows in your mind. It's funny on the surface but that hides just how moving it is. My kind of movie.
Ines (Sandra Huller) is a sharply focused workaholic whose entire life seems to revolve around making it to the top of the corporate ladder - even outside of work. Her social life is more about the exchange of business cards than actual human connection. She works for a consulting firm and is based in Romania where she and her team are tasked with advising corporations in regards to their human resources. It's the kind of work where they fire a lot of people based on presentation graphs and charts.
Her father Winifried (Peter Simonischek) is much, much less serious. In fact, he's a bit of a goofball. In the very first scene he greets a deliveryman at the door. He plays a prank on him by wondering out loud what his brother "Toni" ordered this time. "My brother just got released from prison...he was locked up for mail bombs," he says with a straight face. He comes back inside the house and calls out for Toni. A worried deliveryman waits at the door. He emerges as "Toni Erdmann", his alter-ego costumed in a black bathrobe, a blood pressure monitor attached to his abdomen and a large pair of dark sunglasses. This playful transformation from Winfried to Toni Erdmann will come back again and again during the film. This time, the prank is on Ines. She surprises her by paying her a visit in Bucharest. He inserts himself in situations - mostly corporate parties of various kinds - that becomes increasingly awkward.
Play is taken seriously here. There are no rehearsals to his pranks, Winfried just goes with the flow. He makes himself the character of Toni and pretends his way into her life, shifting the script according to the situation. He goes by instinct and impulse, which at first, makes him seem the antithesis of his daughter. While the initial awkwardness is funny to watch, their role-playing eventually reveals how much they are alike and how much they have grown apart. She resists his foolish behaviour at first but eventually he wears her out and she performs alongside him. This slow disintegration of her seriousness alludes to a long gone relationship that was probably shared by these two. She looks like she's used to his antics and may have appreciated it at some point, perhaps when she was a young girl.
There's something about staging a performance, whether on the theatrical stage, on film or as a prank, that heightens our awareness of what we value and why we act the way we do, both for the spectators and the performers. At one point Winfried bluntly asks Ines: "are you even human?" He sees right through her tough disposition. But Ines doesn't need her help. She's more than capable without him. This may appear to be a father's selfish attempt at saving his daughter from the 'evils' of the corporate world but I think it's just a lonely man looking to reconnect with the daughter he knew. His idea of her. Selfish, yes. But understandable. It's better to see this film less as a play on types but a play about a play on types. The performance goes much deeper and is much more layered than what it first appears.
Huller plays Ines playing out the character that her father wants her to play while still hanging on to the character she has hardened herself into while giving us glimpses into the real Ines - if that still exists or just a fragmentation of all her 'performances'. Of course, given the situation, we are all performing. The moment we put on our clothes in the morning and go out the door, we enter stage and we act.
But Maren Ade is not interested in simplistic characterisations. Ines is a type of woman, Winfried is a type of man. They play their roles, subvert them then shatters it apart until we don't know what is what.The feel-good ending we've come to expect from movies is denied from us: to see how the father helps his daughter and make her less serious, and her make him less foolish. Maren Ade doesn't take us in that direction. This play-acting across Bucharest does not so much allow the two to fix each other but more or less reveal with such startling clarity, how they can't and will never be able to (for lack of a better word) complete each other. The final shot of Ines is absolutely perfect. She puts on a face, replaces it with another and we are left not knowing where she has ended up. It's hard to tell when someone, even the ones we are supposed to know the most, is performing for us.