In the immortal words of one of those foul-mouthed “South Park” kids: What the [bleep] is wrong with German people?
Toni Errdmann is an odd, odd film. We did like it, but we were utterly shocked to find it nominated for an Oscar. (Though it was doubtless better than the utterly pedestrian and rather cowardly Persian flick that won.)
The story is this: An old man is trying to connect with his middle-aged daughter, but she’s not really having much of it. We don’t really find out why, particularly, except that dad and mom divorced at some point, and he puts the blame for his current estrangement on that, it seems. She brushes him off, and so he dons a spectacularly awful wig and some bad teeth, and follows her on a business trip to Romania where he pretends to be a character named Toni Erdmann.
What ensues never fully commits to much of anything. We’re not sure why they’re estranged, as I mentioned. We’re not sure how or why, having gotten to this point, he should suddenly become obsessed with reconnecting with her. We’re sort of led to believe he might have the health problems, though the movie thankfully (I guess) steers away from such cheesy premises. The problem, overall, though, may be that it sort of steers a way from all the premises. Why does anyone do anything? the movie seems to ask. But this is a terrible thing for a movie to ask—at least one like this one.
Toni turns out to be disappointed in what his daughter does, too, apparently. She’s a “consultant”, which means she travels to companies around the world to provide them with justifications for downsizing and outsourcing. This is touched on, but not really developed. She seems to be alienated from everyone, including the local communities she works in, but this is also not really developed. She’s alienated from her lover, which is graphically and grossly illustrated against some poor petit fours. (At which point, you’re thinking: “Germans!”) She has a breakdown at one point, which she sort of plays off as a team-building exercise—but this is also left hanging, along with the movie’s various flaccid male members you just know to expect in German flicks.
Each scene of the movie exists as its own set piece, really. Engaging enough in itself, and often exciting a certain amount of compassion for these strange people. But it never really even tries to explain anything. Some things sort of make sense, like the daughter having an amazing singing voice. And other things, like the father showing up in a Weird Giant costume, end up seeming like fairly organic outgrowths of the story. But other things just exist of themselves, and nothing really pushes the whole thing forward—something which might have been provided by (an admittedly cheesy) health problem. (Like, if the father had six weeks to live but didn’t want to admit it, or something.)
And so, The Boy and I liked it, though we would only cautiously (at best) recommend it to others. A lot of our enjoyment came from the unusualness of the film which, if you don’t see 150 movies a year, may not be a major criterion for you.