Toni Erdmann

Toni Erdmann ★★★★★

I saw this film yesterday and I'm still inside of it, trying to figure out my thoughts and feelings about it. Maybe writing a little bit about it will help me figure it out?

I like to go into movies as blindly as possible. If I don't watch something for a specific actor or director it is often the poster that will tickle an interest in me. The poster for Toni Erdmann enticed me the moment I first saw it because it seemed to hold a secret--it promised a fairytale of sorts. When I clicked on it I saw that it was starring Sandra Hüller, a young German actress who blew me away in Requiem (which you should all rush to see!) and so this film quickly became my most anticipated watch of 2016.

So I felt a little disappointed initially when I realized that it wasn't really a fairytale. But the longer I think about it, the more it does feel like it holds a certain magic underneath it all, but it might only reveal itself to those who look for it.

I loved the ideas behind this film, the core of this story about a quirky man who's trying to reignite a spark inside his all too grown-up daughter, a spark that so many people lose as they get older. She's a woman who has conformed, who adapted wonderfully to society's expectations and rules, she spends her days at business meetings and her evenings glued to the phone, she's successful in a way many people would applaud to.

Not her father, though. He seems to be in mourning over the loss of a child that is still among us, but not really alive. When his beloved dog Willie dies, he travels to Bucharest where his daughter works, trying to reconnect to her, maybe even possibly save her. And here we have our fairytale hero, not a knight in shining armour, but the quintessential father, a man whose biggest strength is his imagination.

What he finds only breaks his heart further. There is a huge disconnect between this woman who has lost her inner child, and her eccentric father in whom the curiosity and playfulness of childhood is still very much alive. As he's accompanying her to business meetings and events he brings a silliness along with him that his daughter feels ashamed of and gets more and more annoyed by.

Now the problem I had with this is that most of the almost three-hour movie is set in this business world. I understand why it needs to be this way, yet it still makes this a film where you spend a huge amount of time listening in to people discussing contracts and deals and other boring things. It's a world that can't be very interesting to the average viewer, and the colorless language they speak is very foreign to me in particular. But can I really criticize that when that is exactly the point? When we are supposed to get a sense of how cold and empty and humorless her world is? Maybe instead I should praise the director for her commitment to realism, her refusal to please the audience.

However another problem arose from that very thing, and that was that Hüller is stuck with and in a character who not only cannot be very exciting to play, but also doesn't allow her to show off her strengths. If you've seen any of her other work, you will have noticed that she has an extraordinary emotional depth and range, and here, for the majority of the film, the most emotion she gets to display is by clearing her throat when she feels uncomfortable, usually when her dad is being embarrassing in front of important clients or potential business partners. After finishing the film I read an interview with the actress where she talked about how challenging it was to stay so hard throughout most of the film. You constantly want her to break, to stop acting so grown-up, a desire that we share with her father. Again I wonder if I can really criticize that when the performance does exactly what it is supposed to do? It is certainly a very committed performance that is devoid of any vanity, she's not here to flirt with the audience. Like the film itself, she's not begging for our approval.

In the end I did get my moment of subtle magic, at least that's the way I saw it. The mysterious imagery of the poster revealed itself to me, and it shook me because I too have had a dad that I lost and who lost me even before he passed away, a dad that I really loved, and as they shared an embrace that felt like an eternity it was almost cathartic, and I Iived vicariously through them. I think this moment was particularly powerful because the film so consciously steers away from sentimentality.

It is certainly a very well-made, well-constructed and well-thought out film that is brave and mature and original and bizarre and deep and personal and consistently true to itself. There is a ton to admire and respect about this thing. I just need to swim around in it a little while longer. But the fact that I want to do so should tell you everything you need to know.