Toni Erdmann ★★★★


Well, Christian Petzold broke the ice, but it looks like Maren Ade's going to bring it home: the "Berlin School" has broken beyond the rarefied festival circuit to produce bona fide hits. What's particularly shocking about this turn of events is that, unlike other segments of the austere art-film universe, the Berlin School appears to have crossed over into the mainstream almost by accident. Apart from slightly more direct plotting, there's nothing about Petzold's Phoenix that made it inherently more accessible than his earlier films. And now, Ade gives us Toni Erdmann, a generational comedy that, at its core, is about the inappropriate character and unavoidable embarrassment that accompanies "humor" between the generations.

Ade has long been the stealth comic in the Berlin School, her films displaying more direct affinities with, say, Austin mumblecore or the Canadian cinema of WASP social dysfunction, than with the stark, daunting precision of Angela Schanelec or the gridlike atmospherics of Ulrich Köhler. Her debut, 2003's The Forest For the Trees, was a pitiless character study of a provincial schoolteacher (Eva Löbau) whose unwitting arrogance brings her low. The somewhat more complex Everyone Else (2009) again uses literal conceit as its conceit. A bohemian couple (Birgit Minichmayr and Lars Eidinger) end up spending time with an older pair whose dreary suburbanism the bohos regard with ironic contempt. But, as a laid-back vibe gives way to Teutonic Edward Albee, the younger pair realizes that if they're staring their future in the face, they'd be lucky.

Toni Erdmann represents a major leap forward for Ade as an artist. This is partly because it's funnier, sadder, and more expansive, but those qualities, I think, result from one significant change. Here, Ade pulls back to provide a broader social context for her protagonists. While the folks in the previous films were not reducible to type, exactly, here they are full-flesh human beings who are navigating broad structures that are much broader than themselves. And so, in order for Erdmann's father and daughter to find each other again, they must negotiate a great many hurdles not of their making.

This is the story of Ines (Sandra Hüller) and her father Winfried (Peter Simonischek). She is an up-and-comer at a corporate consulting firm; they are about to close a deal with a major client, a Romanian oil company. He is a high school music teacher in a small town. His students and colleagues seem to appreciate his wacky gags not so much for themselves as for the joie de vivre they display. Ines is a terminally flustered Type-A who, as a woman in a primarily male-driven industry, is hyper-aware of appearance and what those around her seem to think of her. Winfried has less than a fuck to give.

This is a premise that could fuel any number of lowbrow comedies, of course. And Ade is hardly above crass silliness. Part of the main strategy of Toni Erdmann is that Dad keeps causing trouble, saying he's going to leave, and sticking around to cause a new variety of trouble. By dropping in on Ines unexpectedly for her birthday, he concludes that she is unhappy, is working too hard, and "needs" him to disrupt her workaday life. And this is where Erdmann gets interesting.

Winfried's judgment of Ines, and his taking it upon himself to thwart the life she has worked so hard to build, is the height of patriarchal arrogance. The film loves this character but doesn't let him off the hook for exercising this prerogative. In the standard Hollywood comedy version of this scenario, Ines would simply be the uptight bitch who needed her corporate ambitions levelled, so she could become a girlfriend or whatever. Odious stuff.

For her part, Ade shows that Ines does need an intervention of sorts, that she isn't happy. So her dad isn't wrong. But Toni Erdmann also articulates the real-world consequences of wacky, disruptive behavior. (Hint: not all of them are good.) There are some points in the film when Ines more than rises to Winfried's bait, and then some. At other times, the insanity seems to go too far, but other people play along, presumably because they have seen something like this in a movie once. The layers of shifting reactions in this film are something far beyond the "comedy of embarrassment," or else we're seeing that concept extrapolated to Proustian dimensions.

And what of Ines and Winfried? They reconnect, they grow, but perhaps more significantly, neither of them undergoes a radical change. They recognize the need, and the desire, to make space in their lives for the other, but as they are. When Ines borrows Winfried's plastic buckteeth near the end of the film (one of his many costume props), it's a subtle signal: we are imperfect, and we're going to do this thing anyway. It may sound cheesy, but trust me. It's grate.