Film review: TONI ERDMANN, from ‘Built For Speed’

German writer/ director Maren Ade’s long and very quirky tragi-comedy Toni Erdmann carefully negotiates the line between pathos and farce for one of the more unusual but affecting films so far this year.

The title character (Peter Simonischek) is a hulking dishevelled man in his 60’s whose life appears to revolve around playing weird Andy Kaufman-style practical jokes on people. With his unkempt hair, fake teeth, and sloppy dress sense he also bears an odd resemblance to Sir Les Patterson.

For about the first 30 minutes of this film it’s unclear where it’s headed and it seems as if we might be subjected to over two hours of Toni the sad clown shuffling around inflicting pranks on unsuspecting dopes. The story only begins to take shape when Toni heads to Romania to visit, or more accurately stalk, his uptight daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller) who is trying to put together a big business deal. As she attends meetings and upmarket corporate soirées Toni keeps popping up in strange wigs making bizarre claims that he is a friend of tennis Svengali Ion Tyriac or that he’s the German ambassador. At first embarrassed and infuriated, Ines, like the cinema audience, begins to warm to Toni’s bizarre approach to adult life.

With its slow pace, lack of soundtrack music and scenes in which people say very little, the film has an unusual contemplative mood. Also, with its story of a young woman and an older man finding each other (admittedly under very different circumstances), the film at times recalls Lost In Translation.

The film will draw very different reactions from people based on their sense of humour. The comedy is very much in the European quirky school relying on strange sight gags which at times veer disturbingly close to clowning. Those who enjoy this style of humour will be in fits of laughter as was the shrieking and convulsing audience at the screening I attended while others will be left stone-faced.

Although he’s the central character Toni’s jokey persona always keeps the audience at a distance and we never get to know him completely. More is revealed figuratively and literally of his daughter Ines who steadily becomes the central character. Her mix of fury and affection toward her father is often very moving but thankfully the actors and Ade prevent the film from slipping into clichéd sentimentality.

The film also makes some thought provoking philosophical and political points. Without being didactic the film also reminds us that life is brief and it’s important not to become trapped in situations that stifle our true character. Also, the film makes some perceptive observations about the new economy of Eastern Europe and the heartlessness of capitalism.

This film won’t appeal to everyone but those attuned to its charms will be delighted and moved.

Nick’s rating: ***1/2.

Genre: Comedy/ drama.

Classification: M.

Director(s): Maren Ade.

Release date: 9th Feb 2017.

Running time: 162 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast.


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