Format: DVD from Northern Illinois University Founders Memorial Library on rockin’ flatscreen.
When I finished the 1001 Movies list, I thought that I was done with really long foreign language movies. In the four years since finishing, there have been a few pretty long movies added, but only Leviathan approached the 150-minute mark and wasn’t in English. That’s until Toni Erdmann showed up. At 162 minutes, Toni Erdmann was a daunting undertaking. I won’t say I didn’t want to watch it, but I did have to check it out of the library twice. When I’m particularly busy with work, non-English movies are harder for me. I generally have to wait for a day off (I don’t get many as a teacher) or the end of a term. Since I want to complete the current 1001 additions before the end of the year, I bit the bullet.
Having said that, I should follow that up by saying that this isn’t much of a bullet to bite. Toni Erdmann is long, arguably too long, but is also wildly entertaining. In fact, the length is really the only issue I have with the film. The film could do with a small trim, say down to about 140 or 145 minutes without losing a great deal.
It’s entirely possible that I connected with Toni Erdmann because this is a film about a man’s relationship with his daughter and I am a man with two daughters. In the case of the film, both our main character and his daughter are considerably older than my daughters and me. However, I get the point of the film, or at least I think I do.
Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek) is an older divorced music teacher with a fondness for playing jokes on people. Over the years, he has become disconnected with his daughter Ines (Sandra Huller), who currently works in Romania as a consultant. When Winfried’s beloved dog dies, he decides to recreate the connection to Ines, who seems to have no time for him, the rest of her family, or anything she enjoys beyond her job. Winfried spends a little time with her by simply showing up in Romania unannounced. After a few embarrassing encounters and him letting Ines sleep through an important meeting, he decides to leave.
But he shows up again in a few days, this time as a different person. Armed with a black wig and a set of novelty teeth, Winfried begins inserting himself in Ines’s life as a man named Toni Erdmann. Toni talks to people about unusual things, makes outrageous claims for himself, and tells people that he is a life coach. He continues to show up unannounced at a variety of Ines’s work functions, inserting himself into her conversations and often hijacking them. On the surface, it is an elaborate prank with which Ines rebels and then eventually participates. Below that surface, it’s Winfried attempting to forget that connection with his daughter and to make sure that she knows her life is supposed to be fun at least some of the time.
As might be expected, there are a number of unusual moments in Toni Erdmann, many of which are initially embarrassing for Ines until she simply starts going with them. There are also oddly sexual moments, such as a strange tryst between Ines and her boyfriend as well as the party that takes place at the end of the film where Ines simply decides that everyone should be naked at the party. Since this is a party designed to help her improve relations with the Romanian company where she is consulting, it doesn’t go as well as it could.
Toni Erdmann is a film that sneaks up on the viewer. It’s not big or flashy, but consists instead of a series of conversations that happen across the length of the film. It’s also a film that is subtle in that most of the conversations that happen aren’t directly related to what the film is about. In fact, most of the conversations aren’t really related to what those conversations are truly about. It’s a movie that requires constant attention, but it’s not always an easy movie on which to concentrate.
It’s also quite slow. I can understand someone looking at Toni Erdmann and throwing up his or her hands in frustration. But it does, slowly, pay off. There’s an odd sense of whimsy to it, and whimsy is hard to do well. It’s easy to create an off-the-wall, wacky character (just look at the career of Jim Carrey). It’s hard to make that character someone who is believably off-kilter and just strange enough to register as weird without being clearly a movie character. Toni Erdmann does that.
There are moments here that are hard to watch if you are the type of person who suffers from other people’s embarrassment. Bear down and deal with it; Toni Erdmann pays real dividends.
Why to watch Toni Erdmann: It’s funny in the best way and charming in the best way.
Why not to watch: At close to three hours, it does go on a little long.