“For once, let's finish something politely."
[ Essay published in Filmmaker Magazine — March 2018]
Toni Erdmann follows Ines Conradi (Sandra Hüller), a fearsomely staid executive consultant to Romania’s oil industry.
Enter Winfried Conradi, Ines’ divorcée father. We first encounter shambling, hangdog Winfried (Peter Simonischek) playfully disrupting routines of suburban Bavaria with wince-worthy improvisations often involving a set of joke-shop dentures. The least tolerant of such irksome pranks is Ines, who attends family brunch wearing a work suit and can scarcely glance away from her phone because, we realize, she’s never not working.
The following week, stricken by his dog’s death, Winfried arrives unannounced at Ines’ Bucharest-based office, where she’s working to close an important contract — a stock pantsuit affair that plays out over the film with excruciating buzz-wordy authenticity. Ines, entertaining clients, pretends not to notice her waiting father, and instead sends her assistant to get him situated.
Finally, in a private car, Ines finds her father and asks how long he’s been waiting. “Three hours,” Winfred says, which is an apt choice of time-frame for writer-director Maren Ade (pronounced ah-day), whose 2016 Oscar-snubbed feature  runs about that length. At 162 minutes, Toni Erdmann is the longest German comedy you will ever see, and is hands-fucking-down the most culturally on-pulse film to come out of Europe this past decade. This is a film about generational spite, about shame and self-respect, about the casualties of capitalism and the humanistic failings of the European Union. This is Ade’s third feature, the first German film to debut at Cannes in 10 years, and is – in no form you’ve seen — a comedy.
In Bucharest, Winfried hangs about awkwardly, making ill-received jokes to Ines’ joyless colleagues and clients. It’s easy to identify with Ines’ embarrassment. In each scene, she anticipates her father’s misbehavior, and feels the full weight of it where others only catch a light handful. And they don’t mind, we realize, though she thinks they do. It’s a common sentiment: people being embarrassed of their parents. They’re embarrassed because, via nature, via nurture, they carry their parents within themselves. Their perceived failures amplify between our genetically similar heads.
“Tell me. How long are you planning to stay?” Ines asks shortly after fumbling drink-chat with her father and a client.
“I took a month off,” Winfried says. There’s a long pause. You can see Ines recoil and rolling eyes.
“There. That was real fear,” he says.
It’s heartbreaking: Winfred knows how his daughter perceives him, even if she doesn’t say, or hasn’t as of late. We’re never given the backstory, never told if this shakiness in their relationship is recent, or whether it has alway been there. The film stays close to the present, not once breaking chronology or harkening to a character’s memories. No, it would be too easy and self-defeating to employ such direct expository technique here. Part of what’s brilliant is that the film’s emotion never manifests in dialogue. Ines’ interactions with her father are stiff, the way an associate lawyer feels around the partners. No one will fess up to how they feel.
To Ines’ relief, Winfried decides to depart after a few days. Or so we believe — until, unexpectedly, when Ines is at a bar with friends, a stringy black wig swivels to show Winfred’s snaggletoothed smile is back. In this Kaufman-esque disguise, Winfried introduces himself as "Toni Erdmann," an identity Ines is too ashamed to debunk. As Erdmann — who describes himself variously as both a "business coach" and German ambassador to Romania — Winfried proceeds to stalk Ines, sabotaging her every appointment in an escalation of ludicrous set-pieces.
Ade’s comedic sensibility exists somewhere between Billy Wilder’s, Luis Buñuel’s, and Franz Kafka’s. It’s hysterical and devastating all at once. I left the American premier with tears pooled in my dimples, still hyperventilating, still trying to comprehend what worked so well absent any hallmarks of contemporary American or British humor. There’s no recursive word-play or wisecracks or mordant lampoon, no expressed apathy or self-deprecation, no Woody Allenish kvetching, no Richard Pryorish take downs, no sexual entendres, no precocious children or profane grandparents or cynically insurgent co-workers. In fact, for the majority of the film, Winfried is Ade’s only comedic force.
In contrast to Winfried’s exuberance and impropriety, Ines’ corporate world appears banally vainglorious. In their custom-cut suits and souls, Ines and co. perfectly embody Generation X, children of post-war children, who came of age during corporatism’s post-industrial ascendence. Ines is pursuing what she’s been conditioned to believe is success — of profits as telos and responsibility as something to be enshrined in symbol and evaded in reality. She brings work home, and with it the face she wears at the office. She can’t take it off. Her skulls conforms to fit it. This expression or rather lack of expression. Attentive but absent. Her face. The fear.
It is a vapid version of the same fascist spirit that pervaded Germany in 1930s — a constant, thoughtless advance. Corporatism, which was modeled on Militarism, values sameness. We’ve reached an amazing point as society where we have enough resources that we don’t all have to work 80 hours a week, but our Protestant ethics and our adoration of status quo are such that we won’t admit it and so we find ourselves in this surreal situation where a good amount of people are spending a good amount of life pretending they’re working: whole skyscrapers full of cubicles where men and women spend their days playing job.
Winfried’s actions aim to reactivate emotions Ines seems to have anesthetized as part of her job description. However inappropriate it may be, his sabotage of her career is a kind of act of love that inculcates in Ines a possibility of self-esteem outside of work.
And Ade, too, is defiant: first, against comedy’s fading formulaism of self-effacement, and second, against European cinema’s anachronistic Romanticism. In the featureless wake of Pasolini’s foretold consumer holocaust, Ade purges Europe of that Bohemian-borne "nostalgia" that Woody Allen befittingly diagnosed as "denial" in Midnight In Paris. Absent are the forlorn Italian lovers, the Godardian nymphs, the woefully lush visions of the past. There is only the catastrophe of a continent squeezed between radical neoliberalism and resurgent fascism. Toni Erdmann isn’t set among the embalmed tourist traps built by the Holy Roman Empire, Prussia, and Weimar. Rather, the film unfolds primarily in the aseptic suburbs of privilege, and secondarily in the Romanian slums where the biggest mall in Europe is being built for a populace that cannot afford its products. The supporting casts’ superb performances are as plastic as any mid-level manager’s when asked by a potential hire what purpose they find in their work. Graced by hardened naturalism, Ade made a film that cannot last, for it is a urgent challenge to the world as it is right here, right now.
The film’s Brechtian climaxes are genuinely two of the funniest scenes I’ve ever seen in film, whose humor derives substantially from our second-hand embarrassment for Ade’s lead. Fittingly, the Germans have a word for such vicariously-sensed shame: fremdschämen. The false-summit (spoiler) involves Ines pitchily but passionately singing “The Greatest Love of All,” as immortalized by Whitney Houston, to a party of nonplussed strangers, as Winfried accompanies on keys.
The second climax, which I wouldn’t dare spoil, is doubly mortifying and doubly uproarious; it’s unforeseeable, earned, and terrifically transcendent. At first, we laugh at Ines the way she laughs at her irritant father: because we are nervous, because of fremdschämen. And just when the expected scene break should come, Ade doubles-down on the absurdism, shattering any kitsch of bourgeois formality, stringing and plucking the tensest coil so it sings out sterling.
There is an abundance of tearful release in the film’s subsequent conclusion — keep tissues close by — for we all share in Ines’ dilemma: how to be nakedly oneself against all the world’s assumptions. Ade’s generous, skeptical perspective is less normative than explanatory. In answer to corporatism’s behest for conformity, we abandon our true selves in favor of the false impressions others have of us. It begins innocently enough: someone thinks they know you, but really they’re seeing a VCR-recording of a few frames of the full film that is your inner-life. It’s so distorted at that point, but that’s everything you are to them, even those you know and love the most. And because they love you, or reward you, or scare you, you conform to their expectations. And as you grow, the expectations expand exponentially, and farther out and farther out, and your personality vibrates in micro-movement, wherein you don’t actually alter but bury or bend from your inherent inclinations, your center-vertical. And whatever you can’t fix about yourself, you despise. And you lie awake at night, beyond the reach of NyQuil and warm milk, counting up the sins of commission and omission, the trusts betrayed, the promises subtly broken, the gifts irrevocably wasted through sloth or cowardice or carelessness. And even if you perform better the next day, even if you attain the respect of others, you believe you’ve fooled them, that you aren’t actually the person they want you to be. And we can’t talk about the validity of these teachings because talking about it is also shameful. So we inhabit the caricatures drawn of us. We play Hellen Keller to anyone’s Annie Sullivan, Ines to anyone’s Winfred. At the mercy of those we cannot but hold in contempt, we play roles doomed to failure before they are begun, each defeat generating fresh despair at the urgency of dividing and greeting the next demands made upon us.
This is how world now breaks spirits: subtly, privately. Jimmy Carter called it a "crisis of confidence."
Toni Erdmann is the story of a woman who has lost her self-respect in trying to conform, and of her father who is always respectful of himself and wants to help her find her way home, but only conceives of the means by which he connected with her when she was a child: by being a clown. It’s the story of a father attempting to do a soft reset on his suffering daughter by rewinding her back to her kid-self — so brave and empyrean. By the 162-minute mark, which arrives breezily, Winfried succeeds, though perhaps perfunctorily, for he’s telling his daughter to live her life however she wants to do it. But can she actually? The credits roll.
Jack Nicholson and Kristen Wiig have been cast as father and daughter in an upcoming American remake, which Ade has opted not to direct herself.
 Toni Erdmann lost Best Foreign Language Film at last year’s Oscars to Asghar Farhadi’s perspiration-inducing Iranian drama, The Salesman, which was fantastic and rightfully abetted by Farhadi’s protest against No. 45’s Travel Ban.