Toni Erdmann: The Greatest Love of All, by David Bax
Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann is a lot like one of its characters, a man called Winfried who sometimes tells people that his name is the same as the movie’s title. It ambles genially, disarming you with an unassuming lack of pretension. Yet, just like Winfried, it’s also larger than life and perversely attracted to anarchy.
Winfried (Peter Simonischek) is a divorced schoolteacher, affably sarcastic like a German Michael Moore and prone to awkward pranks. He answers the door for a delivery man wearing a goofy set of false chompers and implying the package he’s signing for is a bomb that’s about to go off. Later, he shows up at a party with his face painted like a skeleton. Just as we’re settling into his impish rhythms, though, we’re introduced to the film’s real protagonist, Winfried’s daughter, Ines (Sandra Hüller), who rarely sees her father anymore and who works in Bucharest as a corporate consultant whose job is to find the best way for companies to save money by firing their employees. After an abortive reunion, Winfried decides suddenly to spend some time with Ines and shows up in Bucharest unannounced.
Movies, made by artists, have a poor track record when it comes to depictions of the corporate office world, usually resorting to guesswork and clichés. Ade, though, taps into the thrumming worriment of such a place, where every exchange or action must strike the right balance of confidence and subservience in order to escalate you up the invisible leaderboard or else drop you down a notch. Hüller is stellar here, letting us understand how this anxiety is both killing Ines and keeping her alive. All the while, with every interruption, every hand placed on the small of Ines’ back, every insistence that she take the client’s wife shopping while he and the boss discuss business, we are shown how these stresses are compounded for women.
Lest you begin to feel too sorry for Ines, though, Ade never lets you forget her unexamined privilege and power. Ade repeatedly places her protagonist above others, on balconies or looking over the railing from the second level of a mall, emphasizing the cold pragmatism with which she regards fellow humans, particularly those whose livelihoods she can terminate on a spreadsheet. Regarding the unrecognizable person his daughter has become, Winfried asks her if she is human.
Ines is, of course, human but Toni Erdmann reveals itself, over its lengthy but worthwhile runtime, to be concerned with no less a question than what that ultimately means. People are animals but what sets us apart from the rest of the planet’s creatures other than a few sets of unwritten rules?
Ade shows us, in increasingly outré chapters, how precariously thin these social contracts are. Winfried, as Toni and with Ines in tow, walks all of our behavioral assumptions about gender, class, family, business and more right out to the cliff’s edge. With this lovable agent of chaos at the helm, Toni Erdmann is like an arthouse version of Jackass (that’s a compliment). But it’s also sad, lovely, affirming, aspirational and one of the year’s best movies.