Papa don't preach
Maren Ade's Toni Erdmann on paper sounds like that most tiresome of tales: a free spirit goosing up a prig's life, teaching her how to relax, be in the moment, grow a sense of humor. Basically the plot of half of Robin Williams' movies (though for the record the films by Michael Richie, Terry Gilliam and Robert Altman I liked), Steve Martin's (though his collaborations with Herbert Ross, Fred Schepsi, and Carl Reiner I liked), John Candy's, a host of other Hollywood comedians.
Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek) teaches grade school music and is an incorrigible somewhat disturbing prankster--early on for example he makes his face up as a ghoul to pay tribute to a departing teacher; later at a lunch with family (and still wearing the makeup) he informs them that he has a side job at a retirement home--50 euros per death. His daughter Ines (Sandra Huller) is an ambitious up-and-comer in an international consulting firm, constantly on the cell phone, constantly traveling to other countries. The two aren't close: Winfried and his wife divorced and Ines grew up with her mother. Winfried only finds out at the lunch that Ines is celebrating her birthday early and has no gift for her; Ines in turn is palpably uneasy talking to him. When Ines flies to Bucharest for an important meet Winfried suddenly pops up at her office lobby to deliver his promised birthday gift, announcing that he's staying a month; Ines scrambles to close the deal and accommodate her dad at the same time.
If Ade largely avoids the pitfalls of the genre that's no small achievement. Peter Rainer at The Christian Science Monitor wonders at the oddity of a German comedy and wonders further if perhaps this is why most critics are rapturous about the picture; I think it's a tad more interesting than that. Simonischek, a hulking bristly man, doesn't play Winfried the way an accomplished comedian would; his schtick is more awkward than polished, his hunched massive frame half-ready to apologize for whatever absurdity he's about to commit, and he often gives up or admits it's a joke part of the way through; folks react with a blank face, unsure what to say, then give a polite nervous chuckle. It's like Open Mike night at the local comedy club: someone steps up halfway sure he's going to bomb, and you can't help but clap in embarrassed sympathy.
Comedy? Not really. Ade's film I submit is more a melodrama of humiliation, a series of difficult situations pushed as far as they will go; Simonischek and Huller (and the rest of an excellent cast) take it pretty far. Winfried's pranks and tall tales can be inventive but you sense he's cringing inside at the possible harm he causes, is counting on others' forebearance to excuse his eccentricities. In a way he reminds me of the granddaddy of all free spirits, Michel Simon's Priape Boudu, not so much (to paraphrase writer Richard Boston) a breaker of convention as a man without an ounce of convention in him in the first place.
Simon didn't originate the free spirit; arguably there was Chaplin before him. But Chaplin was an upstart, thumbing his nose at police officers and bullies bigger than he was; Simon (and Simonischek) loom over their intended victims, threatening them with a substantial physical presence as well as outrageous vaguely assaultive behavior.
As straight man (woman) Huller proves one can be smart and beautiful and sexy and still be funny. Ade helps Huller by carefully outlining Ines' circumstances--her consulting firm is trying to extend their contract with a German oil company, who in turn is trying to justify outsourcing the maintenance of their oil rigs; because outsourcing involves layoffs the oil company knows there will be political fallout, and they want Ines' firm to take the blame. Ines in effect is a deliberately seated duck and knows it, which is why Winfried finds her so stressed out.
If Winfried is the source of chaos then Ines is the human face reacting to that chaos. Most of the time she looks weary; the women who know Winfried (Ines, Winfried's wife and mother) are familiar with his antics, and tolerate them with an air of sullen resignation. Huller gives us an increasingly exhausted face that towards the end looks in danger of imploding. O she lashes out here, there: at hotel staff for a disappointing massage; at her secret boyfriend, who she tricks (in a grotesque scene involving petit fours) out of screwing her; much later--hosting a birthday party slash team builder--at her boss and co-workers. The last is the film's comic high point, when the long-bubbling pot brims over and Ines definitively proves she's daughter to her anarchic, malevolently mischievous father; Huller mostly carries the scene with assist from her heroically deadpan co-actors, the comedy hilarious precisely because it's so uncomfortable, and played with so much honesty.
Best film of the year? Well--I wish Ade had tried harder to tie corporate culture to the sterile architecture surrounding it, either urban Germany or present-day Eastern Europe, the way say Tati might. Also wish the camerawork had more variety--understated handheld shots are fine, but three hours' worth can tire the eye. Certainly one of the funniest films of the year, and the fact that it maintains such a slow burn before the comedy really hits the fan--that I imagine helps. A long not uninteresting character study with a worthwhile payoff.
First published on Businessworld 1.19.17