What could possibly lead a high-powered corporate consultant to decide to shed her carefully selected clothes? To receive her colleagues and acquaintances naked at home for her birthday party? To demand that they get naked too or leave? Ask Toni Erdmann.
Toni Erdmann is supposed to know her best. He raised her. But at some point, she got very far away from him. Perhaps she deliberately tried to become the opposite of him. The father, though, never became distanced from his alter ego. It’s part of how he deals with people in social situations, on a routine basis.
Perhaps father and daughter both have a sort of social anxiety, but choose to handle it in different ways. At some point, the father takes it upon himself to bring Toni Erdmann back into his daughter’s life – to help her rescue the inner child with whom she totally lost touch.
Toni Erdmann is the irreverent, at times socially outrageous, side of Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek). He’s the protagonist in the German movie aptly named Toni Erdmann. The sweetly tragicomic movie from Maren Ade has been nominated for and won various important awards this season.
The daughter is Ines Conradi (Sandra Hüller). She’s serious, composed and career-focused, while hiding a crumbling interior life. She’s also an anxious boss pleaser and a victim of rampant sexism in the corporate world. The latter becomes painfully clear during her stint in Romania.
The naked reception in Romania seems to be her way of reconnecting with the alter ego’s message – perhaps a message she knew as a child, when she and her father were still close – and letting go of social conventions and pressures for once in her adult life.
But a lot happens in Toni Erdmann before we get to this naked (yet sexless) climax.
We meet Winfried Conradi back in suburban Germany, where he teaches kids amid his semi-retirement. He’s a divorcee who relies on the company of his dog and occasional family visits. He pulls a prank on an unsuspecting mailman, using his alter ego. He brings out Toni Erdmann at the most inappropriate moments. Or simply as an interjection in a banal conversation. Toni Erdmann colors his otherwise dull and lonely life; we know he’s coming when Winfried puts on his fake teeth, with variations of wigs and other props.
Interactions with his daughter are cold, terse and awkward. She passes through town very quickly to visit. Little does she know that he will literally show up on her doorstep in Romania soon. The catalyst is the death of his beloved dog.
What follows is a painful series of encounters between Winfried and Ines, his only daughter. We see him ever more desperate to connect with her, and her pushing him away and barely giving him any attention. She doesn’t alter any of her routine for him, and takes him along to business meetings. He acts inappropriately but, to her chagrin, her male superiors respect and appreciate him more than her.
Tensions between these two polar opposites finally reach a breaking point, and she kicks him out. Winfried returns as permanently Toni Erdmann – or never leaves, rather – and manages to show up wherever Ines happens to be. While ineptly and hilariously stalking her and pretending to be someone else to try to fit in with her colleagues and life, Winfried ends up reaching some degree of independence.
He may just be able to break through to her, to lend his daughter some joie de vivre; while she may be able to lend him some seriousness in building connections.
Do I smell romance in the air? And is that… a giant hairy phallus or Chewbacca?
To me, one of the most touching moments in the movie is when Toni Erdmann goes with Ines to a Romanian club. Just before she has a cocaine-fueled breakdown, you can see a hint of appreciation in her eyes for her father being there for her, in his own way, and not giving up on her as she teeters on completely losing her sanity. He doesn’t judge her, and loves her unconditionally, despite her state and treatment of him.
The most important moments in this long, and sometimes sluggish movie – but worth the ride – may be the ones where nothing is said. It is subtle, powerful acting by the two stars, who serve as perfect foils and complements to each other.
Another highlight, besides the naked scene, of course, was the father-daughter rendition of the cheesy ballad The Greatest Love of All. It’s heartbreaking how she just up and leaves after sharing such an intense moment with her father, in front of strangers. After finally agreeing to be a hilarious accessory to his Toni Erdmann act. I must admit I cried in this scene, and several others in the movie – when I was not chuckling loudly. But I also groaned. So many mixed emotions.
I thought of my own father, how playful he used to be, and how I’ll never see him again. I wish he would come and make me feel awkward in front of my friends again. Just one more time.