Many of the creative forces behind this festival darling from Germany, including writer/director Maren Ade, are convinced that their text has been wrongly categorised as a "comedy" and is actually a highly dramatic piece. The truth of the matter is that the film Toni Erdmann is a family drama but one laced with enough humour that there is room to interpret proceedings as a situational comedy, however, that would undermine the heartbreaking pathos within.
The film centres upon two characters: Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek), a single bohemian music teacher who has a penchant for pranks and absurd alter-egos. In contrast, his daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller) is a rigid and highly respected corporate consultant focussed only on her career. After suffering a loss, Winfried decides to force his way into Ines' meticulously planned life. In his mind to save his daughter from a cold and unhappy lifestyle. His chief tactic in this mission is to embody 'Toni Erdmann’; an absurd character with shabby hair and large protruding teeth. Set against a backdrop of middle class suburban Germany with the majority of the action in a Romania divided between wealthy corporate life and devastated industry and rural areas, Ade appears to be demonstrating a harsh image of capitalism in modern Europe, with Ines personifying a cold attitude to the most brutal of lay-offs and Winfried demonstrating a love for people and good feeling; a real hippie of sorts.
Although, she appears uptight and distant, Ines is brilliant at her job and highly skilled, while not outwardly happy, her career fulfils her. Winfried's invasions into his daughter's life feel both well-meaning and selfish; he needs to feel relevant once more, especially to the one person he felt once admired him above anything else. Ines, too, feels heartbreak at this distance growing between them, but it is Winfried's hilarious but destructive behaviour that is the catalyst for the chaos - both admirable and yet also slightly uncomfortable. Ade walks a fine line here, this is not just a case of an absurd caricature versus a strait-laced bore - neither are entirely wrong or wronged here, and that's where the real pathos lies.
These excellently written characters are brought to life by two excellent performers. Austrian stage veteran Peter Simonischek brings a warmth and colour to the role of Winfried, easily handling the nuance of playing the sad clown amongst the manic tomfoolery of Toni Erdmann. Sandra Hüller has done something truly wonderful with Ines, however, crafting a heartbroken daughter immersed in a steely capitalist demeanour. There is a fantastic complexity to her performance that prevents her from being just a cold fish, and when Ines begins to crack under the pressure, both the funniest and then the most affecting scene occur out of Hüller's skillset and Ade's dedicate handling of her leads.
Much has been said of the film's epic runtime - 2hrs 42mins - but every moment here feels significant for painting these two detailed and moving characters. The humour increases in volume towards the end but, brilliantly, so does the pathos and it is with this drama that Ade finds a true conclusion for her characters. With Ines, she and the audience find a personal affinity (the director has explained on various occasions that the film is loosely based on own paternal relationship). Even in the most absurd of moments, Ade does not lose the naturalism of her directive style, making even the outlandish moments all the more potent and moving.
Ade's detailed character study has won the film much acclaim named the 'Film of 2016' by both the Sight and Sound and Cahiers du cinéma, it would seem this beautiful German tragicomedy (with its universal story) will only continue to attract audiences in years to come. It is both flattering and worrying that Hollywood will tackle remaking Toni Erdmann so soon. Jack Nicholson and Kristen Wiig are attached and while interesting casting choices, it will be hard to repeat the tenderness brought by Ade and her lead actors as they effectively convey the, at times, painful evolution and ageing of a parent-child relationship.