If you’re looking for the best and most beguiling foreign-language film of the year, you’ll find it in Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann, a German father-daughter story that will leave you laughing and choking back tears, often simultaneously. As writer and director, Ade shares her triumph with the two brilliant actors she’s cast in the lead roles. Peter Simonischek is perfection as Winfried Conradi, a divorced, semi-retired piano teacher who considers himself a master of disguise. He adores confusing friends with wigs, fake teeth, whoopee cushions and assorted accents. His dog is his best audience, but when the mutt dies, Winfried – shaking off intimations of mortality – decides to rebuild his relationship with his only child, Ines (a superb Sandra Hüller). She’s a 30-ish corporate-management exec, the kind who goes ice-cold as she instructs employers how to cut costs by firing people, and who’s busily constructing a career in Romania, where breaking the glass ceiling is even harder than you might expect.
And so Winfried is off to Bucharest to surprise her. Let me point out that you only think you know where all this is heading. In her third feature as writer and director, following 2003’s The Forest for the Trees and 2009’s Everyone Else, Ade again shows her skills at confounding expectations and blending restraint with absurdist farce. Sure, the daughter is embarrassed when dear old dad starts in with the hairpiece and buck-teeth and introduces himself to her colleagues as a corporate life coach named Toni Erdmann. It’s telling that her male bosses prefer this fictional gent’s antics to what is referred to as Inez’s feminist streak. “Are you even human?” her dad asks, dropping the disguise and issuing the killing blow with his question.
But has Inez always been the straightarrow offspring to her father’s madcap prankster? The answer comes in a series of scenes that culminate in a public performance where Winfried, pretending to be a German ambassador accompanies his daughter as she belts out Whitney Houston’s “The Greatest Love of All.” Funny stuff. But it’s the sincerity that Inez invests in the rah-rah ballad that pulls you up short. That, and the ingrained sense that father and daughter have done this before, and that the apple hasn’t really fallen far from the tree.
Ade ups the absurdist factor with a party scene too good to spoil here – just expect the unexpected. Is Winfried trying to humiliate his daughter or wake her up to her increasingly soulless life? And what is she doing to him? These questions percolate through this gem, making a nearly three-hour film seem like the fleetest of confections, a human comedy that hits you where you live.