In the annals of father-daughter cinema, it’s probably safe to say that there has never been another pair like Winfried Conradi and his adult daughter, Ines, the central figures in Toni Erdmann. She’s a no-nonsense oil-company consultant, transferred from Germany to Romania, while he’s a part-time music teacher with a penchant for practical jokes, many of which involve fake personas. They’re not exactly oil and water, as Ines does share her father’s dry sense of humor. She’s more like an apple who has fallen close to the tree—and then tried to roll as far away as possible.
Ines’ separate life is interrupted one day when Winfried shows up in Romania for a surprise visit. They pass an awkward weekend together, and when Ines tries to send him back on his way, he doubles down by reappearing as the title character—a buck-toothed, wildly wigged personal consultant who threatens to dismantle her intensely manicured life. Rather than panic, however, she calls his bluff, bringing this Toni Erdmann into her inner circle in a way that will have unexpected emotional ramifications for them both.
Written and directed by German filmmaker Maren Ade, Toni Erdmann is a no-frills production, despite its considerable running time. There is little music and the camerawork is unobtrusive. Ade pares away any unnecessary elements so that we can focus on the complicated, accomplished performances. As Ines, Sandra Hüller has a corporate shark’s indifference to any human element—be it the neediness of her father or the affections of a colleague. Yet there are moments, including a nightclub scene where she watches her father with a newfound awareness, when we sense the limitations of her emotional armor. As Winfried/Toni, Peter Simonischek somehow manages to play an outsized character to the hilt without letting him dominate the movie. No matter how goofy “Toni” is acting, Simonischek also manages to layer the scene with a tinge of sadness, letting us know that Winfried is well aware of the fact that most people are politely tolerating him.
Toni Erdmann doesn’t at first seem like a comedy, yet in addition to the deadpan tone the movie also has at least two laugh-out-loud moments, including Winfried’s first, incredibly discomfiting appearance as Toni. The other big laugh—equally born of surprise and discomfort—comes during a party thrown by Ines. On an impulse, she turns the gathering into her own absurd joke, one that’s more extreme and outrageous than anything her father has yet devised. The ensuing way he participates in the “gag” is hilarious, bizarre, and oddly sweet. Toni Erdmann is not so sentimental as to have these two erase all their differences in the end, but it does reveal something you never would have guessed at the start: that Winfried and Ines are made for each other, and perhaps for no one else at all.