LFF 2016: Maren Ade is at the helm of a hilarious and heartfelt comedy
'Are you really a human?' Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek) asks his daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller) in a rare moment of exasperation. This superlative comedy from German writer-director Maren Ade has proved a festival favourite across the globe, winning prizes at San Sebastián and Cannes. Although it wields its silliness to potent effect – with scenarios ranging from titter-inducing social awkwardness to more flamboyant lunacy – Toni Erdmann is also a textured portrait of the parent-child relationship, as well as a shrewd satire of corporate shenanigans.
The pair reconnect in Bucharest when Winfried, a music teacher and serial prankster, springs a visit on his miserable management consultant offspring, much to her horror. When Ines packs him off, he returns sporting an ill-fitting brown wig and his cherished false gnashers, in the guise of his alter-ego, the titular Toni Erdmann – and, in the process of crashing his daughter's social scene and constantly threatening to humiliate her professionally, he teaches her to lighten up.
As bonkers as things tend to get, Ade's third feature never feels overdone, there's a wonderful naturalism to the often excruciating interactions and the performers are superbly game and never-less-than sincere. The film's fly-on-the-wall visual style, too, captures the unfolding insanity in a way that keeps it grounded – Winfried's antics are all the funnier for the credible, cleverly drawn context.
In its own inimitable and unforgettable way Toni Erdmann takes a pin to the corporate bubble, ridiculing business-speak, highlighting the stubbornness of workplace sexism and showing the increased pressure to succeed that divides generations. The action takes place against the business-friendly facade of modern Romania, a country trying to reinvent itself whilst hiding its widespread poverty just out of view.
Ultimately we see that Ines fears her father's presence not because of a lack of love or commonality but because it forces her to confront the consequences of her professional decisions, and to see her life through his eyes. Never mind her career achievements, what Winfried wants is what all parents should, for his daughter to simply be happy.
Screened as part of the London Film Festival 2016. General release from Fri 3 Feb.