Do we ever really know our children? It's easy to feel close to the little ones, their young minds and budding personalities constantly betraying their need for a parent's love and understanding. The older ones, especially those who've grown up, left home and struggled to find their place in the world, often prove tougher nuts to crack. That's when the complexities of family relationships take hold, making it hard to see sons and daughters clearly while others easily do. If we can't really see them, how can we hope to make a difference in their lives?
That's the underlying premise of Toni Erdmann, the astonishing third film from German writer-director Maren Ade. A study in contradictions, Toni Erdmann is a small-scale, deeply personal film that's nearly three hours long; a soft-spoken, often brooding character study that sharply satirizes today's dehumanizing corporate culture; and a serious drama with many bouts of unexpected hilarity. Toni Erdmann just gets weirder and more disorienting as it progresses, without flying off the rails or losing focus.
The film's essential strangeness hasn't kept it from mainstream success. It's one of five nominees for this year's Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award and has already swept the five major awards at the Oscar-equivalent European Film Awards, while also drawing many best-of-year accolades.
Toni Erdmann surely flirts with conventional filmmaking, at least in the first of three roughly hour-long acts. Middle-aged music teacher Winfried (Peter Simonischek) has a penchant for odd disguises and elaborate practical jokes, while his ambitious and serious-minded daughter Ines (Sandra Huller) appears consumed by her quest for corporate success. Winfried surprises Ines with a spontaneous visit to Bucharest, Romania, where she works as a consultant to an international oil company. Family tensions mount as Winfried strives to communicate with Ines, sensing her profound unhappiness.
The rest of the film delivers one surprise after another, all hinging on a single, seemingly inexplicable transformation. Winfried manages to insinuate himself into Ines' personal and professional lives by becoming Toni Erdmann, a grinning "life coach" in a black rock-star wig whose bizarre sense of humor earns his acceptance in a series of closed-door corporate settings. (Ade found inspiration for the Winfried-as-Toni character in the late, great comedian/performance artist Andy Kaufman.) How else to penetrate the walls Ines has built around her life?
The grand odyssey of Winfried and Ines in Toni Erdmann may seem a gargantuan effort for the relatively modest rewards of a little self-knowledge and increased understanding between generations. But it can take a lifetime of love and attention to maintain even a single such bridge, as Ade's film quietly suggests. What else are families for?