For the Love of Movies: In ‘Toni Erdmann,’ comedy and drama collide

Director Maren Ade sculpted a film worth seeing.

Renowned Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky frequently called filmmaking “sculpting in time,” an observation I find incredibly perceptive and widely applicable. Some films come off looking perfect, like a Michelangelo in the Accademia, but others relish in their impurities, like a Rodin or a Picasso. With Maren Ade’s newest movie, Toni Erdmann, the German director finds herself in the latter category.

After an extended period of silence, Toni Erdmann begins with a mailman walking up to a door. Winfried, the man who opens the door, says the package is not for him, and runs back inside to grab his “brother,” a supposed ex-convict specializing in mail-order explosives. The mailman looks down at the package with a newfound intensity, preparing himself to leave as soon as he’s able to hand off the parcel.

Winfried returns to the door with sunglasses and a slightly different outfit, masquerading as his “brother.” The mailman squirms with discomfort as Winfried stalls at the door, taking any chance he can to allude to his alleged criminal past. Winfried, a harmless man of 60 or 70 years, watches with amusement. Although the scene is resolved without an explosion, the practical jokester sets off a ticking time bomb that exerts its presence all the way until the climax of the film.

In a later scene, still wearing the makeup from one of his recent comedic exploits, Winfried hugs his daughter, Ines, as she sits down to eat her birthday dinner. Winfried and Ines could not be any more different. Ines is a businesswoman, living in Bucharest. She spares no time for jokes or amusement. As Winfried hugs her, he sees no happiness. He sees a woman he doesn’t recognize anymore.

When his last piano student quits for lack of time and his dog dies of old age, Winfried decides that his best option is flying to Bucharest to bug Ines. The film follows Winfried as he adopts a new name, Toni Erdmann, and seeks to infiltrate his daughter’s company. The resulting movie is a learning experience for both of the protagonists. It is full of quick wit, gut-wrenching comedy and revelatory drama.

Ade’s third feature-length film, though it drags its feet at moments, is an exemplary portrait of a father-daughter relationship. Make no mistake, this movie will push your boundaries. At around two hours and 45 minutes long, Toni Erdmann contains long stretches of silence and many a scene in which nudity is an integral part of the narrative. Ade makes a conscious effort to keep these impurities, and the film comes off better as a result. It is a sculpture worth seeing.

Toni Erdmann plays for a limited time at Ragtag Cinema on March 21-23.

MOVE gives Toni Erdmann 5 out of 5 stars.

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