The Greatest Love Of All – Toni Erdmann (Film Review)

As a 3 hour German comedy about a father attempting to reconcile with his distant daughter through pranks, Toni Erdmann is perhaps the most unlikely film to top any best of the year list – and yet it clearly belongs there. The film is unlike any comedy or dramas that has come this year, entirely and almost effortlessly captivating, even with its slow, deliberate pace.

Winfried appears, at first, to be a peculiar character, with an even stranger narrative arc on paper – an aging prankster with a penchant for wearing fake dentures and strange disguises who is seemingly thrown into an existential crisis following the death of his elderly dog, and decides to get closer to Ines, his seemingly cold, unhappy and career-focused businesswoman daughter.

Toni Erdmann

All but consumed by her work, Ines has no time or patience for her father and his pranks. Winfried leaves, and enter ‘Toni Erdmann’ – a character he commits to, and proceeds to follow Ines around and harass her (in a harmless way) as much as he possibly can. It then becomes clear that the film isn’t about an arc of character growth for Wilfred or Toni Erdmann, but for him and his daughter together. The film follows the protagonists around at a leisurely pace, each scene finding them in a locations and circumstances of escalating peculiarity and awkwardness (a standout sequence comes when ‘Toni’ and Ines go to a Romanian family party).

The film switches to Ines’s perspective for the majority of the movie, as we are thrown into her seemingly joyless life. It almost entirely revolves around her corporate and dehumanizing job, her dialogue dominated with corporate jargon usually to do with firing people. This isn’t to say that writer and director Maren Ade submits to the cliche of the fun-loving man and the shrewd, unsmiling career woman – besides, Ines can party with the best of them – but the characters are placed in such circumstances so to further the divide between parent and daughter; Ines has outgrown her father.

Ade is more than willing to take her time to make a point sink in, each scene very deliberately placed to illustrate what the two main characters are feeling without explicitly expressing it. There is a loneliness and sadness that is thinly covered beneath Winfried and his daughter’s exteriors, each appearing equal and opposite to the other – one obsessed with career and the future, the other obsessed with ‘fun’, and more essentially, trying to enjoy moments while they are there.

The film is perhaps slightly overlong, but this stems from the director’s desire to slowly and deliberately establish scenes which end with incredible effect – drawn out, awkward situations resulting in outlandish hilarity. A blend of drama and comedy that effortlessly veers between the heartwarming, the melancholic and the absurd, Toni Erdmann is one of the best films of the year, and one of the most bizarre.

Dir: Maren Ade
Scr: Maren Ade
Cast: Peter Simonischek, Sandra Hüller, Michael Wittenborn, Thomas Loibl, Trystan Pütter, Hadewych Minis, Lucy Russell, Ingrid Bisu, Vlad Ivanov, Victoria Cocias
Prd: Maren Ade, Jonas Dornbach, Janine Jackowski, Michel Merkt
DOP: Patrick Orth
Music: Patrick Viegel
Country: Germany, Austria
Year: 2016
Running time: 162 minutes