A large, shaggy something called Toni Erdmann got loose at this year’s New York Film Festival, loping at will through the aisles of Alice Tully Hall while bellowing mournfully and tickling the patrons. People who had spotted the creature earlier, in Cannes or Toronto, had predicted the rampage; but as an experienced festivalgoer, I was skeptical about reports of a seven-foot-tall, pointy-headed movie that would jump out from behind a seat and try to hug me.
“Wait and see,” I thought. The main slate already promised plenty of unruliness.
There would be tales of tough-minded older people rising in revolt—Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake and Kleber Mendonça Filho’s Aquarius—and a historical fantasy about a free-living, middle-aged poet leading the police on a “wild chase” in Pablo Larraín’s Neruda. Gianfranco Rosi would test the limits of documentary filmmaking—and the audience’s moral consciousness—in his harrowing picture about the migrant route to Europe, Fire at Sea. In Sieranevada and Graduation, Romania’s usual suspects, Cristi Puiu and Cristian Mungiu, would immerse their viewers in one afternoon of family disorder and four days of domestic collapse, with doctors as protagonists and social diagnosis as an agenda. The Americans’ contributions would include big, rich domestic dramas by Kenneth Lonergan (Manchester by the Sea) and Mike Mills (20th Century Women), and an unexpected revival by James Gray of the lush wide-screen epic (The Lost City of Z).
There would be much more besides, including an extraordinary concentration of films about African-American life (discussed in The Nation’s November 7 issue), none of which seemed to demand prankish interruption. Then the festival let Toni Erdmann out of its cage, and I, too, started jabbering that Bigfoot roamed Lincoln Center.
Written and directed by Maren Ade, Toni Erdmann is the story of an estranged daughter and father who are both going through life in disguise, the main difference being that hers is respectable. Slender, blond, and thirtysomething, Ines (Sandra Hüller) keeps her hair smoothed in a French twist and her body sheathed in black pantsuits as she plots her rise in the men’s world of management consulting. Despite being assigned to the capitalist backwater of Bucharest, she maneuvers sharply against her colleagues, seeking to outdo them in the task of masking their client’s outsourcing goals. It’s cold-blooded work—and so Ines does not want to be distracted by her father Winfried (Peter Simonischek), a shambling, shabby, sixtyish German music teacher whose idea of fun is to play dress-up with fright wigs, Jerry Lewis–style false teeth, and an occasional application of ghoul makeup, the better to joke about, oh, mailing letter bombs and shooting people. Other than that, the old card seems harmless, except that he springs himself on Ines in Bucharest, unannounced, and begins to burlesque her profession. Disappointed that his daughter doesn’t melt at once into reconciliation, Winfried starts pretending to be a management coach named Toni Erdmann, having donned for this purpose a black suit, black tie, and floor-mop wig. He looks like Neil Young in a remake of Reservoir Dogs.