By the end of Toni Erdmann, a woman has grabbed her father’s false teeth out of his pocket and stuck them into her mouth. He’s seen her naked, and they’ve done coke together, and none of those are even in the movie’s most awkward scene.
The emotions underlying writer-director Maren Ade’s widely acclaimed film are universal, but in everything from its halting rhythms to the traditional Romanian folk costume that features in the film’s climax, Toni Erdmann is apt to feel highly foreign to American audiences.
Those who can settle in and let the film do its thing, though, are apt to be transfixed by Ade’s portrait of a man who we come to see through his daughter’s eyes — which is to say, we feel love and annoyance for him as two sides of the same coin.
His name isn’t actually Toni Erdmann — but only Winfried (Peter Simonischek) and his daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller) know that when Winfried shows up in Ines’s social circles and begins introducing himself as Toni, a sort of life coach.
In actuality, Winfried is a schoolteacher with a bohemian bent, in contrast to the workaholic Ines, who’s based in Bucharest as a consultant to an oil firm. When Winfried fails to connect with Ines on a spontaneous visit, he decides to stick around and try his luck as “Toni.”
That sounds like a setup for a farce, but despite one or two extreme situations (depending on whether you consider sexual congress with a pastry “extreme”), Toni Erdmann lives in its quiet observations of human nature. The simple story is stretched out over 162 minutes, leaving ample time for awkward silences and red herrings.
The shambling Simonischek is at the heart of the film, and Ade’s achievement is to give us a man who we’re never quite sure how to judge. Winfried’s humanist impulses provide an endearing contrast to the cold calculations of his business-minded daughter — when a misjudged joke by Winfried gets a worker fired at a drill site, Ines curtly explains that makes one less person for her to lay off later — but at the same time, his project of insinuating himself into his daughter’s personal and professional life is appalling.
As “Toni,” Winfried dons a ludicrious wig and a set of jutting false teeth, turning himself into a kind of grotesque as if he’s willing to completely debase himself just to catch a few minutes of his daughter’s attention. There’s a symmetry, though: Ines is constantly allowing herself to be humiliated by powerful men who might or might not give her a contract or a promotion.
In the end, the two have made a shared spectacle of themselves. If the climactic scene feels less than plausible (and if the symbolism is a little tidy), it makes for an unforgettable cinematic moment. See it with your parents — just hope they don’t get any ideas.