If there’s a thin line between comedy and sadness, this subtitled film from German director Maren Ade inches along it with cool self-confidence. Toni Erdmann is a strange, sometimes hilarious and ultimately very moving comedy-drama that deservedly won the top prize at last year’s European Film Awards. After early scenes introducing us to his unusual sense of humour, we follow prank-loving German piano teacher Winfried (Peter Simonischek) to Bucharest, where he plans to surprise his high-flying daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller). Unfortunately, she’s horribly distracted with wooing a potential new client called Henneberg (Michael Wittenborn), so any father-daughter bonding takes a backseat.
Winfried seemingly leaves Bucharest feeling dejected and concerned for his overworked and isolated daughter, who appears to be prone to depression. Yet a couple of days later, he reappears unexpectedly while Ines is dining at a fancy restaurant with friends, having disguised himself with a tatty wig and some terrible false teeth.
At this point, Ade’s film becomes increasingly surreal. Presenting himself as “Toni Erdmann”, Henneberg’s eccentric supposed life coach, Winfried keeps inserting himself into Ines’ personal and professional interactions. Her responses to his clumsy intrusions are exquisitely written and beautifully performed. Desperate not to embarrass herself by revealing Toni’s true identity, Ines is clearly exasperated, but she’s too kind and perhaps too scared to tell her father to drop the act. At times, she’s even amused by his silly but well-meaning antics. A scene in which Toni corners Ines into belting out Whitney Houston’s ‘The Greatest Love Of All’ for a room of strangers is a masterclass in social awkwardness.
Toni Erdmann isn’t self-indulgent, but it definitely feels long. Its offbeat comedy unfolds over 162 minutes, which includes an extended sequence set at an awkward naked party and an even freakier sex scene that almost feels like something from a Hollywood gross-out movie. But even in its weirdest interludes, Ade’s film never loses focus. At its heart, Toni Erdmann is a touching exploration of the way parental love can be comforting even when we think we don’t need it.