Comedy, awkwardness, anxiety, heartbreak. How can one director express so many emotions in one film? In Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann (2016), father and daughter play a game of masks, disguises, and evasions, all to show how hard it is to love someone and demonstrate that love. Ade suggests that we are always wearing costumes and masks, pretending to be something we’re not in order to avoid the big emotions that we feel for one another.
While we often discuss a dearth of roles for women in cinema, a male role with complex relationships with the women in his life is also a rare find. Maren Ade delivers to us just such a rarity in her inimitable style and story.
Toni Erdmann is the pseudonym of a jokester father, Winfried (Peter Simonischek), who adopts a silly persona to connect with his distant daughter, Ines (Sandra Hüller). The film is a lovingly awkward battle of wills between the two to admit affection for one another and perhaps come to some understanding of who they are.
Ines is an ambitious corporate career woman clashing with her father, an aging middle school music teacher, whose values seem to be in better order. But we can’t dislike Ines.
For one thing, watching a woman deftly handle negotiations with men—and not only excel at business—but also defy all the low level sexism and misogyny just to be able to assertively demonstrate her savvy is thrilling. It’s a master work in how women navigate the obstacles to success in a man’s world.
Also, Ines is the object of her father’s affection, and Ade has a nearly miraculous touch at making her characters real, flesh and blood people we would never be able to turn away. And in the end, Ines and her father have switched roles: Ines naked symbolically and her father completely covered by a ridiculous monster costume. In this moment, they can love each other openly, still disguised, but with more understanding for one another.
Ade may be a kind of parental filmmaker herself. She sees her subjects with an unchecked empathy, loves them in all of their strengths and flaws, and wants the very best for them.