Hilarious Comedy "Toni Erdmann" Wins Fipresci Prize at Cannes

It was the zaniest wittiest film at Cannes. The three hours fly by in a flash. Maren Ade's Toni Erdmann features the amazing actress Sandra Hüller as a yuppie executive, in tight bun, off to Romania for her rising upscale career, glad to leave her humble roots--read father--behind. This father named Winfried (played brilliantly by the veteran actor Peter Simonischek) surprises her with a visit, which embarrasses his daughter to no end. Winfried's raw behavior threatens her corporate contacts, and throws a wrench in the smooth frigid identity Ines has constructed for herself.

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So far, the movie seems to be going in a conventional route--entertainingly so due to the fine performance by Hüller who could not do a better job in expressing the expressionless Ines. Her frozen corporate face and rigid body--always in a prim suit--betray a trapped anguished soul.

"Are you really human?" the father asks his stiff daughter in the kitchen.

The weekend ends in a shortened visit.

Then surprise, the father returns: this time in a wig and fake teeth, as the debonair Toni Erdmann. He swoops into a restaurant, feigns a CEO identity, charms his daughters' friends, and takes off in style in a limousine. A man of 1960s radical culture, he easily assumes a parody of an upper class man of the world.

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His larger-than-life shenanigans become the wild card in this greatly entertaining film.

What I personally most appreciated in Toni Erdmann, however, were the potshots throughout at the corporate global culture in which the film is set. One wealthy woman confides, "Oh I love countries with a middle class! It makes one feel so comfortable." At the climax of the film, Ines, about to host a company party, cannot fit into her chic tight dress. A symbol that she has had enough. So she greets her boss at the door naked. "Oh, we are nude tonight," she states deadpan. "You know, for, uh, team-building." Ines' job is to help corporations create mass lay-offs with a good conscience. The critique is sharp.

Hence I--and I alone--was disappointed when this pointed subtextual critique of blithe global capitalism is dropped from the film in the last half hour: and this right after a visit to an oil site where a worker, covered in black grease, is unfairly fired.

Ines 'nude' greeting leads to no serious consequences for her job, nor to any questioning about the ethics of her dubious corporate role.

No other journalist seemed to mind.

I asked the director why she dropped it.

"The corporate world is just the context of the film," the German young woman said. "It is where it is set. What do I know about that world? I am an artist. The more I found out [what corporate executives do], the more I felt stupid."

The potential gender issue in the film--of what it means to be a working woman in a male world--was also not of interest to the director. "The whole gender issue actually kind of gets on my nerves especially when it's given so much weight," she stated in the press notes.

Instead, the center of the film is the father-daughter relationship: showing the lengths that a father needs to take in order to win back his girl, and bring back her heart. And on that score, the film is rife with fine breakthrough moments.

The most touching: when Ines, normally so unexpressive, bursts into song ("The Greatest Love of All"), in an Easter party, while her father paints eggs. Her voice quakes.

"We were all touched during that scene," the director told me. "The make-up artist was crying."

While I did not cry, I was highly amused during this movie.

I asked Maren Ade where her unusual gift for inventiveness came from.

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She smiled.

"I got the story very fast of a father who is a jokester while his daughter has a very serious job. Very early on, I had the idea that the father transforms into another character. My own father likes to joke a lot. His humor accompanies me. I once gave him fake teeth as a present, and he would put them in when the waiter came to the table, or whenever the situation got to stiff."

The press audience at Cannes expected Toni Erdmann to win the Palme d'Or.