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‘Toni Erdmann’ is slightly comic, slightly mad

Dan Webster

One of the five nominees for Best Foreign Language Film is Germany's "Toni Erdmann." If you haven't yet seen it (it's playing at AMC River Park Square), you might want to check out the review that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

Love him or hate him, Syd Field wrote the textbook upon which many movies have been made. The late Field, who taught for a while at USC’s film school, formulated a series of rules regarding screenplays that include a three-act structure, 120-page script length and conflict necessarily propelling the narrative.

The problem with rules, of course, is that so many people are loathe to break them. And when you combine that reluctance with a lack of understanding about cinematic essentials, you end up with the many cookie-cutter film projects that open every single week.

Traditionally, this has been an American problem. By contrast, European cinema from Eisenstein to Bergman, Antonioni to Kieslowski, while conforming to some of Field’s basic principles, has tended – until recent years – to go its own way. As the market for cinema grows exponentially international, some European filmmakers are adopting more Hollywood-type conventions. But not all.

Take Germany’s Maren Ade. Her film “Toni Erdmann,” which is one of the five nominees for Best Foreign Language Oscar, follows some of Field’s rules. She does give us a pair of protagonists, both of whom have goals to achieve, and each faces a fair amount of conflict. But that’s pretty much where the similarities end.

“Toni Erdmann” tells the story of Winfried (Peter Simonischek), an elderly music teacher who, when we first meet him, seems to be at a crossroads: Near the end of his career, and facing a couple of personal losses, he embarks on a mission to engage with his middle-age daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller). I say “engage” purposefully because Winfried, an inveterate joker, doesn’t do much that anyone would consider normal.

For example, when greeting a delivery man at his front door, he might pretend to be someone else. He carries a set of fake teeth that he’ll wear at a moment’s notice. Same with a wig that makes him look like James Brolin playing an aging hippie.

So, knowing that his daughter – a workaholic executive for a consulting company – is working in Bucharest, he visits her unannounced. And he commences to haunt her, becoming the bewigged, invented character Toni Erdmann – both to the delight and chagrin of his daughter’s business acquaintances, but mostly to the horror of his daughter herself.

Ade unveils all this in a rambling, 2-hour-and-42-minute narrative that would run more than twice screenplay teacher Field’s suggested length. Worse, from a Field perspective, over the course of the rambling storyline, neither Winfried’s motivations nor the causes of his daughter’s alienation are ever made clear.

Writer-director Ade does give us clues. A product of divorce, Ines feels like a lost soul who may once have been a willing foil for her father’s antics. His actions, then, may be simply his awkward way of trying to rekindle their father-daughter bond. Or to help Ines rediscover some sense of joy in her life. Or both.

But all that’s just a guess. Whatever Ade’s intentions, her “Toni Erdmann” does achieve this: Syd Field or no, it offers American moviegoers a reminder of the many different ways that cinema can express itself.

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