Let me be blunt and straightforward – Toni Erdmann is a masterpiece. It is arguably one of the best films of the year (and perhaps even the very best). Not only is it one of the most wonderful films of 2016, it is one of the most brilliant comedy films ever made. I was taken aback a few months ago when the BBC listed Toni Erdmann – which had been seen by very few people at that point – on its list of the greatest films of the 21st century – how could it be that a film that hadn’t even been released around the world to be considered one of the best films of the 21st century? I finally understand why they chose the film to appear on the list – Toni Erdmann is a masterpiece in every sense of the word, and it is one of the most flawlessly exquisite cinematic experiences I’ve had, and judging from the near-universal acclaim it has received, Toni Erdmann is obviously a film that has struck a chord with several people, starting with its explosive debut at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival and its slowly release around the world over the past few months.
In short, Toni Erdmann is about Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek), who is quite an idiosyncratic man – despite being advanced in age, he still possesses a juvenile sense of humour, and relishes in conducting elaborate and immature pranks, usually to those that don’t appreciate Winfried’s sense of humour. Least of all is Ines (Sandra Hüller), Winfried’s successful businesswoman daughter who has very little tolerance for her father’s mischief, and her career in Romania helps prevent Winfried from being too much of a nuisance in her life – but when he decides to take a trip to Bucharest, he attempts to reconnect with his daughter in the only way he knows how – through ridiculous and often excessive displays of mischief and trouble-making. Winfried eventually puts on the persona of the titular Toni Erdmann, a strange German diplomat, and he soon finds that he is slowly getting through to his daughter. Throughout the film, Winfried/Toni Erdmann attempts to get through to his daughter and repair their tumultuous relationship, leading to some incredible strange and outrageously hilarious situations, like any well-crafted comedy film.
At the primordial level, Toni Erdmann doesn’t sound like a masterpiece – it honestly seems like a broad, low-brow comedy with a hint of sentimentality. Of course, I didn’t have any expectation of this film before I heard the reactions – because much to the surprise of nearly every cinephile, Toni Erdmann had one of the most positive receptions in Cannes history, and its explosive rise from obscure film that was nearly put into the Un Certain Regard selection and then changed to Main Competition at the last minute, to being one of the most acclaimed films of the year proved that there are some films that come out of nowhere and just blow the cinematic world away. Not only did Toni Erdmann prove to be a great film, it somehow managed to set the world of world cinema ablaze, showing that sometimes, a very strange little film can just rise to the top. In a world where films deal with straightforward serious subject matter, a film about a man trying to reconnect with his daughter through fart cushions becoming one of the best films of the year just proves that the universe has a wicked sense of humour.
Very often, in the modern age, we count a film as being a masterpiece by comparing it to other, older masterpieces. The precise reason why Toni Erdmann is such a masterpiece is because it is unlike any other film. Of course, it isn’t truly unique, and smaller comparisons in subject matter can be drawn from other works, but overall, a film like Toni Erdmann hasn’t really ever been made in such a way – both in the way the film was made, and the story that was told. Of course, films about difficult relationships between parents are common, as are films about potty humour and fart jokes (here’s looking at you Adam Sandler and Yasujirō Ozu – and here is the moment where I used the name of one of the most critically reviled actors of his generation alongside the name of perhaps the greatest Japanese filmmaker of his generation). Yet, somehow it has never existed so perfectly as in Toni Erdmann, a film that is more of an ode to life than it is a film about relationships. It is not even vaguely comparable to any other film in recent memory, and unless I am missing out on an entire faction of films that cover the same subject matter in this way, I can say with total confidence that Toni Erdmann is a masterpiece that is as unique as we will ever see.
Toni Erdmann covers some very difficult topics, both small and large. On one side, Toni Erdmann is about family, and the strained relationships we can have with those who are supposed to be closest to us. The father/daughter relationship in Toni Erdmann is touching but also heartbreakingly realistic. There is a tendency for films to show two kinds of parents – loving, perfect parents that always are the wiser and more logical figures, or nasty, abusive parents that are cruel to their children. There is very rarely middle-ground, especially in films that deal directly with the relationships between parents and children as its central theme. In films like this, it is usually either the parent or the child that is at fault – whereas a film like Toni Erdmann makes the most important statement that a film like this could make, and that statement can be summarized in the well-used and pretty much cliched lesson we all have had drilled into us since we were children – nobody’s perfect.
Winfried has extreme flaws and is a childish, foolish man who has failed to grow up – but he is still a good man who loves his daughter and never wants to hurt anyone. Ines is a solemn, serious person without the capability to have any fun, and who is rapidly approaching an attitude of complete ruthlessness and disregard for the feelings of others – yet she is still an insecure and conflicted woman that wants to prove her own worth in an industry dominated by men. Both characters have flaws, but they also have special qualities that make them genuinely good people, and realistic characters. The character development of the two central characters is exquisite, and director/writer Maren Ade clearly used the nearly six years it took to write Toni Erdmann to create a film with characters that are very funny, but most of all incredibly true-to-life and honest.
The second issue that Toni Erdmann deals with well is the far larger issue of society. Other than some feminist messages throughout this film, Toni Erdmann also makes a scathing critique of capitalism and how it is destroying the fabric of society. This isn’t to imply that Ade is a radical Communist, or that capitalism is a truly demonic force, but rather that capitalism is a concept that is abused far too much and turns people into ruthless monsters, willing to break the lives of individuals for the smallest reasons. There is a heartbreaking moment where a labourer makes a small mistake, and is promptly fired, which leads to Winfried to beg the owner of the company to not fire the man. This scene is followed directly by a beautiful scene where Winfried encounters the kindness of simple farm-folk that are having their lives torn apart by capitalist ambitions. Once again, this isn’t an anti-capitalist movie, but rather one that understands the affect our consumer-driven society has on the individual. It is a secondary statement to the larger message of family, but it should be noted that it does help ground Toni Erdmann and give it some interesting perspective.
The performances in Toni Erdmann are beyond incredible. The lead roles in this film are not easy tasks, but I couldn’t be happier to see that Peter Simonischek and Sandra Hüller truly brought it, and gave their characters even more complexity and personality. Usually, even in a two-hander film like Toni Erdmann, there is one performer of the two that sticks out – but I kept going from Simonischek to Hüller as being the best part of this film – they are both equally good, and ultimately, even if I did prefer Simonischek only slightly (mainly because of the emotional gravitas he brings to the role of the conflicted father), both leads are amazing in this film. Both do a tremendous job of keeping this film afloat and never letting it once ring false. I think their performances (much like this film) are going to be remembered for a very long time, because neither only play these roles – they commit fully to crafting characters that are realistic, human and above all, entertaining. Amazing work from both actors, who deserve all the acclaim in the world for their incredible performances here. The film is worth it for the bittersweet and tear-inducing final moments, which is truly a masterclass in both acting and filmmaking.
Toni Erdmann may not be the easiest film to watch – the subject matter isn’t intense, and it is a very funny film. However, it is a very long film (clocking in at just under three hours) and while I was initially intimidated by that daunting run-time, I found it flying by, mainly because of the incredible script, the sparkling chemistry and the fact that Toni Erdmann is just such a brilliant film. I cannot express how truly incredible this film is, and while it may not appeal to very many people, those who do choose to go on this journey won’t ever forget it. Toni Erdmann is truly going to go on to become an iconic film, and I can already see it finding its place comfortably in the pantheon of truly extraordinary films. If you haven’t seen this film, don’t hesitate. It is a wonderful film, and I know for a definite fact that I will be revisiting it often. It is a masterpiece, and I can confirm that I don’t see a situation where Toni Erdmann isn’t on my list of the best films of 2016, if not holding the top spot. Its the closest thing to a perfect film I’ve seen in a while.