Comedies have never had much of a place in the Romanian new wave. Cristian Mungiu’s celebrated 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007) is about two women trying to obtain an illegal abortion, and his Beyond the Hills (2012) deals with young women who share a history of sexual abuse as orphans. Such acclaimed films as Corneliu Porumboiu’s Police, Adjective (2009), about a young detective who’s put in his place for questioning the country’s harsh drug laws, and Cristi Puiu’s The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2005), chronicling the last night of an ailing old man, might be studded with darkly comic moments, but their dramatic arcs bend toward tragedy.
German writer-director Maren Ade praises Puiu and Porumboiu in the press notes for her new comedy, Toni Erdmann, which was shot mainly in Bucharest and shares some of the stylistic hallmarks of the new wave: long scenes, naturalistic performances, an unscored soundtrack, and a hefty running time. For dramatic reasons, Ade wanted her two German antagonists to be away from their native land, and she was drawn to Bucharest by her Romanian executive producer, Ada Solomon (Child’s Pose). Their movie can’t be completely equated with the new wave—its scenes are conventionally edited, in contrast to the Romanians’ punishing long takes—but its unadorned style and tight focus on character interaction lends the movie a similar tone. In fact Ade’s greatest accomplishment is turning this sober style into a vehicle for genuine laughs—especially given the leisurely 162-minute running time, unthinkable for a U.S. comedy.
Appropriately enough, Toni Erdmann tells the story of a father and daughter whose lives unfold at completely different tempos. Winfried (Peter Simonischek) is an aging hippie who gives piano lessons to schoolkids and can’t resist the urge to fuck with people. In the opening scene a delivery man rings his bell to get a signature for a parcel; Winfried comes to the door, insists the package is for his ex-con brother, disappears for a few moments, and reappears posing as the brother in a ridiculous S-M getup. Conductor of the middle-school glee club, he dons black-and-white face paint, looking like a beast from Where the Wild Things Are, to lead the kids in a school recital number, then shows up in costume for a family gathering with his grown daughter, his ex-wife, and her second husband. His interaction with them and their guests, some amused and some startled, suggests a man whose love of tomfoolery gradually alienated him from his wife and child.
Winfried’s daughter, Ines (Sandra Hüller), seems like his polar opposite. A high-powered business consultant in Bucharest, Ines is one of those obsessive go-getters with shoes shined, clothing pressed, and every hair in place. When Winfried arrives at the little party, she’s in the backyard taking a cell phone call; he waves at her in his demonic makeup and, in a hilariously awkward gag, pretends to strangle her stepfather. Father and daughter haven’t seen each other in some time, but her reception of him is noticeably cool—she spends all her time on the phone and begs off on having breakfast the next morning with her ailing grandmother, explaining that she’s got an early flight. When Winfried jokes that he’s hiring a substitute daughter to fill in for her, Ines ups the ante, cracking, “Great, she can call on your birthday so I don’t need to.”
Toni Erdmann turns into a comedy of role reversal—Winfried the mischievous child, Ines the annoyed parent—when the father, heartbroken over the death of his old dog, follows his daughter back to Bucharest for an unexpected visit. The friction between their lifestyles causes her endless problems; Winfried, pulled into an evening out with the Romanian CEO who is her most important client, makes her look foolish in front of her colleagues and so flusters her that she herself commits a serious business gaffe. The tension once glimpsed back in Germany begins to break the surface of their relationship. “Are you really a human?” Winfried asks Ines after watching her squire the CEO’s wife around a shopping mall. Ines is visibly wounded by this remark, and Winfried later apologizes, but she has her own resentments stored up, telling him, “I know men your age with ambitions, but who cares?” When Winfried allows Ines to oversleep and miss a string of important business calls, she flies into a rage, and their visit is over.
But it’s not over. That evening Ines, dressed to the nines, ventures out to a swank restaurant to network with some of her professional women friends and, meeting them at the bar, carps about her troublesome father, just dispatched back to Germany. No sooner has she finished than the man sitting next to them at the bar whirls around on his stool to reveal himself as Winfried in disguise, wearing a black serge business suit, fake overbite teeth, and a long, black wig. Schmoozing the other women like a beefy lothario, he introduces himself as Toni Erdmann, life coach to the Romanian CEO that Ines is working so hard to please. Toni is a wicked parody of Ines’s world, where people are so driven they need a consultant to help them relax, and a clear challenge that Ines can’t meet without becoming as loony as her father.
Toni arrives onscreen about an hour into the movie, with another 100 minutes—the typical length of a Hollywood studio comedy—still remaining. Ade embraces the slow and steady pace of the new wave, teasing from it a comedy of duration: like Winfried, Toni Erdmann keeps bugging you and bugging you until you can’t help but laugh, not because it’s particularly funny but because it just won’t quit. There’s also an emotional toughness at the story’s core that I associate with the Romanians: on paper the movie may sound like a Garry Marshall sitcom episode, but father and daughter are so formidably matched and so genuinely angry with each other that the relationship never turns to mush. By the end of the movie, Ade offers a few touching and unexpected moments that reveal how much Winfried and Ines loved each other when she was a little girl. Like so many good things, they’re worth the wait. v