Britain used to be the place of salvation, the place people dreamt of coming to. Those days are over. Now? It's Germany – tolerant, enlightened and punching above its weight in cultural terms, with movies like Toni Erdmann a prime example of this renaissance. But what will people find when they go there? Judging by this film, a place that's conflicted, though unafraid to satirise its stranger mores.
The two main characters in this thoughtful, funny movie from Berlin-based Maran Ade exemplify the dichotomy of the heart of German society – the worker and the joker. Ines (Sandra Hüller) is a management consultant while her dad (Peter Simonischek) ends up pretending to be one. Confused? You will be. The film has no opening titles and such a rambling intro that the surrealism of the whole affair piles up quickly.
It's head-scratching, yet it (almost) falls into place when we arrive in Bucharest, where Ines has been posted. Her job is to justify the firing of employees of an oil company to make said company more profitable. Her lonely dad turns up to try and spend some time with his daughter and soon enough has taken on the character of Toni Erdmann, motivational coach and business big shot (with fake teeth). He's like any dad, goofing around to try and get a smile out of his daughter – and these larks are enough to make the hardest hearted of viewers smile too.
We eventually see Ines' apparently stable and affluent life for the mirage it is – she's as unhappy and lonely as her father. And this is where things get interesting, because notoriously workaholic Germans must surely watch this film and start to ask questions about their own devotion to a country where business is so entrenched into national values. Is it worth working yourself into the ground?
'Toni' tries to show Ines that it's not, with the help of an astonishingly ambiguous denouement involving lashings of nudity and a bizarre Bulgarian folk costume which looks like a soldier's bearskin hat has literally eaten and engulfed the poor chap wearing it. This denouement also demonstrates how good up-and-coming Ingrid Bisu (who plays Ines' hapless Romanian PA) is at wringing comedy from being the suppressed straightwoman.
As suddenly as it began (though almost three hours later) the whole thing is over with a funeral and some soul-searching. It's an odd, rambling affair, peppered with parts that look like they were improvised and lots of dense biz speak that sometimes mulls the economic colonisation by Germany of the New Europe and sometimes just explores what it is to be human, to be lonely and to work hard from Monday to Friday at a job you're doing just to pay the bills.