Listening Closely

Why ‘Toni Erdmann’ Deserved an Academy Award

On December 15th 2016, I left the cinema with a content little smile on my face. This smile was due to Toni Erdmann. I was smiling because Toni Erdmann had just joined the ranks of my all-time team of ambivalent superheroes, which includes R.P. McMurphy as well as Lisbeth Salander and many others. And I was absolutely sure that I’d always remember Toni Erdmann with a feeling that rarely occurs: The feeling that great art had been great fun. The feeling of great work effortlessly showing you something you could not have explained yourself. Toni Erdmann (by Maren Ade) is such a piece of filmmaking – and should have taken home the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.

Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek) is a divorced German schoolteacher with a knack for 7th-grade-performances, wacky humour and bizarre costumes, irritating his environment and especially his family. When Ines Conradi (Sandra Hüller), his childless thirty-something daughter, who fiercely pushes her career as a management consultant in Bucharest, returns home for her birthday, two worlds collide. The situation deteriorates when Winfried, who consideres Ines to be deeply unhappy, follows her to Romania. And it gets even worse, when he then invents „Toni Erdmann“, a “life coach” with silly fake teeth and a wig, introducing himself to the consultancy crowd (they take him for real) to get close to his estranged child again.

There are many, many obvious reasons why “Toni” should win an Oscar. Screenplay, terrific acting etc. etc. But I’ll name some different reasons why I’d give it an Oscar and why you should go and see it. Toni knows a thing or two about timing, dialogues and zeitgeist. Trust me.

It is, äh, “English”-speaking

The world Ines and her fellow consultancy friends, superiors and assistants live in, is English-speaking. Germans absent-mindedly praise their Romanian assistants in English, Germans talk to Germans in English. Toni explains his coaching strategies in English. The entire film is a friendly satire on how the business world makes use of its lingua franca. To hear and watch that is highly entertaining. Probably even more, if you’re a native speaker, ähem. So, members of  the Academy, I bet you WILL enjoy this Germanglish, just give it a try.

The film is also a sensitive portrayal of a multi-layered father-daughter-relationship. The storyline may sound like a cliché to some of you (unhappy career woman is rescued by her warm-hearted dad), but it’s not. Winfried’s „Toni Erdmann“ is a rebel in just as many ways as he is helpless and lost. Winfred’s post-68s-ideals clash with Ines’ capitalist cynicism, his playfulness with her world’s conformity. But Ines develops her own humour and superpowers. The film lets her turn the tables more than once and sympathizes with both characters equally.

It is truely European!

No, Toni will not teach you how the European Union works. He will not explicitly tell you about WWII and you won’t see lederhosen and sausages. But you will get to know a German schoolteacher who was socialized during the baby-boomer-era and his digital native daughter. You’ll see Romania and its people, you’ll see a Bulgarian lucky charm, you’ll see how extremely diverse Europe is, how living standards vary and what consultants do. You’ll see a bit of German Freikörperkultur (nudism) and Hausmusik (music played within a family circle, which is typically Whitney Houston’s “Greatest Love of All”) and this will teach you more than a trip to Rothenburg ob der Tauber.
Most importantly: After having watched Toni Erdmann, you’ll hold Europe and the Union in higher esteem and you’ll, very quietly, celebrate its diversity.


I have no doubt that Toni Erdmann will make you laugh and it’ll also make you think. You’ll laugh until you cry, but you’ll also feel ashamed, embarrassed, sad and lonely. You’ll enjoy and regret at the same time. Paradoxically, you’ll find unexplained and inexplicable beauty in what lies in a movie and cannot be captured in pictures.
Well, that was it. I kept my fingers crossed for you, Toni. You’re on my team anyway!