Toni Erdmann

Director: Maren Ade
Screenplay: Maren Ade
Stars: Sandra Hüller (Ines Conradi), Peter Simonischek (Winfried), Michael Wittenborn (Henneberg), Thomas Loibl (Gerald), Trystan Pütter (Tim), Ingrid Bisu (Anca), Hadewych Minis (Tatjana), Lucy Russell (Steph), Victoria Cocias (Flavia), Alexandru Papadopol (Dascalu)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 2017
Country: Germany / Austria / Switzerland / Romania
Toni Erdmann
Toni Erdmann

Winifred Conradi, one of the two central characters of Maren Ade’s third feature Toni Erdmann, is a lot like the film itself: large, unpredictable, prankish, yet fundamentally sad—a complex mix of the humorous and the melancholy, both silly and the almost profound. The film’s title derives from an alter ego Winifred (Peter Simonischek) concocts when visiting his overworked, corporate-climbing daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller) in Bucharest, where she is trying to seal a corporate consulting gig that will result in outsourcing and significant layoffs for oil workers. With her pinched face, pressed suits, and tightly wound hair, Ines is meant to represent everything that is wrong with the corporate world, particularly its insularity, which breeds not just avarice and a lack of compassion, but also nurtures old, festering practices like misogyny. Ines is both a contributor to and victim of that world, and Winifred’s brash decision to create a bizarre alter ego allows him to enter into it and observe Ines’s life while explicitly undermining his her goals.

At its heart, Toni Erdmann is an old-fashioned father-daughter story grafted onto a none-too-subtle critique of the corporatization of Europe and the brutally hectic nature of modern life. Winifred, who works in Germany as a grammar-school music teacher, is the perennial outsider whose love of pranks and tricks and fun will forever keep him just outside the polite, well-mannered social order. He isn’t an anarchist or a surrealist, and one gets the sense that he genuinely wants to be part of the so-called “normal” world, but it’s too decisively against his nature to just go with the flow—hence, the set of novelty snaggle-teeth he keeps in his pocket at all times, which he eventually pairs with a goofy black fright wig to embody Toni Erdmann, who is either a life coach or the German ambassador to Romania, depending on the situation.

Indes is constantly mortified by her father’s behavior, but for reasons that are never really explained (outside of plot necessity), she makes no effort to reveal his various ruses to her co-workers and acquaintances, instead playing along with them and allowing him to become embedded deeper and deeper into her life, which as a result begins to rapidly unravel. Ines is clearly miserable—she endures all manner of sexist control at work while struggling for advancement, she doesn’t appear to have any real friends who aren’t also business associates, and a sexual encounter with her Romanian lover yields no real human contact, but instead devolves into a grotesque power play. Her fundamental unhappiness like stems from the fact that she runs her life like a business, always gunning for the next opportunity and never stopping to smell the roses, as it were.

And that, in a nutshell, is what Toni Erdmann is all about, and in case you didn’t get it, at the end of its two-and-a-half-hour run time, Winfried helpfully summarizes it and leaves Ines struggling to find the proper response. That note of ambiguity is a saving grace of sorts, keeping the film from ending on a note of incredible obviousness that is otherwise largely absent from its odd, rambling narrative. Ade, who both wrote and directed, is intent on keeping us on edge, and at its best Toni Erdmann is a dour comedy of excruciating embarrassment, culminating in the now infamous “naked party” sequence that finds Ines cracking and turning her birthday dinner/team-building event into a stupefying exercise in literal nakedness. It’s cringe-worthy in all the best ways, as are a number of other scenes in which Winfried, who is like a hulking sad clown, upends convention with his shaggy, toothy routines.

The film has gotten glowing reviews across the board and snagged an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film, and it’s not hard to see why the critics appreciate its daring. Yet, for long stretches it seems to be ambling in ways that aren’t always particularly interesting, and the fly-on-the-wall cinematography is neither deeply inviting or purposefully distancing; rather, it’s just kind of there. As a whole, Toni Erdmann transcends its weaker moments, melding animal comedy with a deeper sense of purpose, and its balancing of otherwise radically disparate tones is certainly admirable (the performances by Simonischek and Hüller are great, as is Ingrid Bisu as Ines’s desperate-to-please assistant). But, one can’t help but wish that Ade had made it just a little tighter; its rambling nature is part of its off-beat charm, but it’s also a bit too much of a good thing.

Toni Erdmann DVD

Aspect Ratio1.85:1
  • German Dolby Digital 5.1 surround
  • English Dolby Digital 5.1 surround
  • SubtitlesEnglish
  • Audio commentary by actors Peter Simonischek and Sandra Hüller and producer Janine Jackowski
  • AFI Fest Q&A with actors Peter Simonischek, Sandra Hüller and Ingrid Bisu and producer Janine Jackowski
  • Trailer
  • DistributorSony Pictures Classics
    Release Date April 11, 2017

    I was only able to secure a DVD of Toni Erdmann for review, so I can’t comment on how the high-def transfer on the Blu-ray looks. The DVD looks fine for standard definition, with good detail, contrast, and color. The film features a number of starkly different environments, including Ines’s mostly white apartment; a dark, neon-infused night club; and various exterior environments around Bucharest, and the transfer manages them all well. The Dolby Digital 5.1-channel soundtrack is also very good, with strong, clear dialogue in the front soundstage and a good use of the surround channels for environmental effects. The audio commentary, which was recorded the day after the film’s premiere at the AFI Fest in Los Angeles, features actors Peter Simonischek and Sandra Hüller and producer Janine Jackowski, all of whom speak in English. It is a generally informative track, although there are some awkward silences and a few periods when you can tell they’re reaching for something to talk about. Those same participants also appear in footage from a Q&A session after a screening at the AFI Fest, where they are also joined on-stage by actor Ingrid Bisu. It is, of course, unfortunate that writer/director Maren Ade could not be involved in any of these supplements. The disc also includes a trailer.

    Copyright © 2017 James Kendrick

    Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick

    All images copyright © Sony Pictures Classics

    Overall Rating: (3)

    James Kendrick

    James Kendrick offers, exclusively on Qnetwork, over 2,500 reviews on a wide range of films. All films have a star rating and you can search in a variety of ways for the type of movie you want. If you're just looking for a good movie, then feel free to browse our library of Movie Reviews.

    © 1998 - 2021 - All logos and trademarks in this site are the property of their respective owner.