Who is one’s authentic self? The more one considers the influence of language and social customs, the knottier the question becomes. But middle-aged prankster Winfried (Peter Simonischek) slips this philosophical knot. He wishes only to goad his uptight daughter, Ines (Sandra Hüller), through relentless, embarrassing hijinks, toward adopting a happier, more attentive self.
When Winifried, a grammar-school music teacher, attends a dinner at his ex-wife’s home to see their daughter, a rising star in a powerful consulting company, he barely has an opportunity to speak with her between her urgent phone calls with business associates.
Soon she returns to the backwater of Bucharest, where she sweats to land a deal with a local oil company that will earn her a transfer to a more glamorous post. The bargain: her company will take the opprobrium for outsourcing most of the company’s labor (leaving the locals desperate) in return for a contract.
Uninvited, Winifried visits her in her elegant apartment, overlooking a Romanian favela. A lumbering idealist failure in his daughter’s eyes, he cannot convince her that her striving for success within the pecking order of global capitalism is making her miserable. Hers is a serious case, and calls for stronger measures.
Enter “Toni Erdmann,” Winifried’s alter ego, in false choppers and a shoulder-length wig, dogging his daughter’s steps at meetings, networking events, and receptions and introducing himself as a celebrity life coach (or, alternately, as the German ambassador to Romania) to her puzzled and fascinated friends, colleagues, and clients. As she grovels before bigwigs, her father becomes the witness of her humiliation.
Acting as a comically grotesque mirror for her alienation, Winifried uses his kook disguise to persuade Ines to doff her corporate drag. She does not do so without a fight; even in amorous play with her lover (Trystan Pütter), she remains fully clothed. And when she bloodies her blouse while puncturing a blister in order to cram an injured foot into pumps, she swaps tops with her aspiring assistant (Ingrid Bisu) rather than wear this stigmata of her humanity into the boardroom.
Director Maren Ade is too sophisticated to imply that if Ines just got naked, she would become the adult version of the winsome little girl who learned to ride a bike from her dad. So when, between the pressures of her father’s love and the expectations of her profession, Ines does finally crack, hosting a “naked party,” no one knows what to do with their nudity except to carry their gift bags strategically. “Toni Erdmann” chooses to crash this party in his most outlandish disguise yet.
Ines cannot get back to the garden, but she does come home to Germany, at least temporarily, to help her father pack up the house of her grandmother, who has died. While they are goofing around on the patio—Ines making a gallant effort—Winifried goes to fetch his camera, supposedly, leaving her suspended between roles, wearing a funny hat and false teeth, listening for the sound of his return. Or just listening.