Toni Erdmann

Toni Erdmann ★★★½

Film #25 among my 52 Films by Women 2017

This comedy from writer-director Maren Ade of Karlsruhe, Germany was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars, Golden Globes and BAFTA. It was also nominated for the Palme d'Or at Cannes and won Ade the FIPRESCI Prize as "A film gorgeously crafted, made with a fresh and a sensitive approach, that captures the complex relationship between father and daughter and comments on the lunacy of today's world."

Living alone Aachen, Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek) is a divorced 60-something piano teacher with a bizarre sense of humor. He likes to play practical jokes on people, from the parcel delivery man to his students. And he takes on different personas to affect his pranks, such as becoming his own brother who has recently been released from prison. It's sometimes difficult to know when he's serious and when he's just kidding around.

Winfried's elderly mother Annagret (Ingrid Burkhard) lives with a companion, Mrs. Rodica (Manuela Ciucur), and he leaves his blind old dog Willi with them when he visits the home of his ex-wife Irma (Klara Höfels). He finds that she's preparing an early birthday party for their daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller), who is visiting briefly from her executive consulting job at Morrisons in Romania.

Ines is all business, and her mom didn't seem to eager to have him there, so Winfried leaves soon after arriving. He's especially let down because his daughter won't have time to see her grandmother before flying off in the morning. Then later, back home, Willi dies and it's as if all the entire world were moving away from Winfried.

But he's not a man to sulk. Winfried takes a month's leave from the school where he teaches and pays an unannounced visit to Bucharest, showing up disheveled in the lobby of Ines' company. Of course, she's surprised to see him there, but takes it in stride and invites him to a reception being held that evening at the U.S. Embassy.

Initially seeming to embarrass her, Winfried soon strikes up a friendship with her visiting German client Titus Henneberg (Michael Wittenborn), who works for Dacoil Petroleum and invites them out for drinks afterwards with his wife Natalja (Victoria Malektorovych). The subject turns to outsourcing, and Titus reveals Winfried's little joke about hiring a substitute daughter to cut his toenails, again making Ines uncomfortable.

Winfried does his best to play papa, bringing Ines a French cheese grater and a small bankroll as birthday presents. But what he really wants is some time with her and to know that she's happy -- a word she finds too strong. She's also uneasy with his concept of fun. She has a career. Work is her life now, and he can see that her world has grow quite apart from his.

Ade raises an interesting dilemma here -- the old "work to live" versus "live to work" syndrome. Ines believes the way to get ahead is to subjugate her personal feelings and give clients what they want, even if it means taking the client's wife to a shopping mall on the weekend, rather then spend it with a visiting father.

Winfried, on the other hand, is much more about the present than the future. He's around for the laughs, the entertainment and the sheer enjoyment of the moment. And that may be fine if you are retired or close to being so, but it's certainly no foundation on which to build a career in the cutthroat world of big business. Ines is critical of him for having no ambitions.

After just two days, Ines is ready for her father to leave so she can get back to work and her friends Steph and Tatjana (Lucy Russell & Hadewych Minis), who enjoy barhopping and talking about sexual quotas, sexual harassment and other work-related topics. But this is where the story kicks into its true gear -- Winfried doesn't actually leave Bucharest. Instead, he dons a wig and introduces himself to Ines' girlfriends, much to her chagrin, as 'Toni Erdmann," a life coach.

Others characters we meet (and so does Toni) include Ines's driver Bânzaru), her colleague Tim Trauter (Trystan Pütter), her boss Gerald (Thomas Loibl), her young protege Anca (Ingrid Bisu), and Dascalu (Alexandru Papadopol) and Iliescu (Vlad Ivanov), two of Titus's trusted local employees. There's also a Christian woman named Flavia (Victoria Cocias), whose Easter party Toni crashes and forces Ines to sing Whitney Houston's "Greatest Love of All."

The best part of this is when Ines loosens up a bit and throws a catered birthday for herself, but I won't spoil it. That sequence is followed by another one almost as bizarre. And life passes so quickly. How can we hold on to the moments unless we make them unique? It's all about altering perceptions of ourselves and our world, a kind of reconnecting with the playful child within each of us. And that's what makes this a film worth watching.

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