Oscar nominations were announced this week. Women working behind the camera inside and outside Hollywood and their supporters around the world were chagrined, if unsurprised, to see the list of Best Director nominations comprised entirely of men. Worse yet, director Mel Gibson, who has been accused of anti-Semitism and repeated domestic violence, took the place of any number of equally qualified women in the same field. Anyone hoping for more recognition of those female directors by The Academy can at least celebrate the nomination of German indie Toni Erdmann for Best Foreign Film. It is helmed and written by director/screenwriter/producer Maren Ade, and is getting a wide release to art houses across the country this weekend.
Toni Erdmann is a quirky, often charming movie about Winfried Conradi, a retired teacher who yearns for and works towards a closer relationship with his grown and career-obsessed daughter, Ines. With a two hour and forty two minutes running time, you’d think this movie would have a complicated and very involved plot. Actually, it’s quite simple. After Winfreid decides he wants to be closer to Ines, he repeatedly goes to her office and to her business trips, much to her annoyance. The ways he goes about getting her attention are what make the story fun, compelling, complicated, and quirky. The film’s name, Toni Erdmann, refers to Winfried’s alter ego. Erdmann is the brash, snaggletoothed, shaggy-haired, yet somehow enigmatic character he plays when he shows up at Ines’s business events. Audiences are witness to a series of very strange, and often awkward encounters, at various points involving a naked brunch, a karaoke rendition of a Whitney Houston song, and a Bigfoot costume.
The success of this film, and the way it sinks into your psyche to stay, is based in the three-dimensional characterizations, and the slow, authentic evolution of the father-daughter relationship from estranged to deeply connected. It couldn’t be further from the trappings of a Hollywood feel-good flick. There aren’t neatly tied bows in the way of comfortable conversations, or platitude-filled speeches by the movie’s end. The interactions are just as weird, nutty, and love-filled as in any real familial relationship. That is what makes the film so beautiful: Just because there’s disfunction, doesn’t mean there isn’t love, and a desire to connect.
There’s an argument to be made that if women in the world of cinema are welcomed into the Hollywood studio system, movies like this one would be in shorter supply. I’d argue that, indeed, there would be more of them, because women who make films are more often involved in the writing and producing. In fact, the two women who have been nominated for features at this year’s Oscars both own and head production or film distribution companies: Maren Ade co-founded the production company Komplizen Film, and the other nominee, Ava DuVernay, who directed, co-wrote, and co-produced the eye-opening and fascinating documentary 13th, founded the independent distribution company ARRAY.
Toni Erdmann is a great example of a film that should have been considered for more than just the foreign category at the Oscars. It already won five awards at the 29th European Film Awards, including Best Film, Best Director, Best Screenwriter, Actor, and Actress, and it is the first time a film directed by a women has won its top award. It won all these awards for good reason. This movie has the sort of staying power that will make it a long-appreciated favorite for many who make the effort to seek it out in theaters. Unfortunately, being both foreign and female-directed, given the current climate at the Academy, we should be grateful it has been recognized by the Academy at all. With that said, foreign film lovers, those who support women in film, and the 98% of people out there who know the challenge of transforming a strained parental relationship, will do well to add Toni Erdmann to their must-see movie list this Oscar season.
Film grade: A