Sandra Hüller does the subtlest, loveliest double take you’ve ever seen. More a quick dart of the eyes, really, followed by a tensing of the shoulders, before her expression hardens and her mind leaps into damage-control mode.
It’s a gift that this brilliant German actress keeps on giving in “Toni Erdmann,” in which she stars as Ines Conradi, a tightly wound corporate consultant who has become so skilled at managing her clients’ moods and demands that she knows just how to react — or not react — when someone comes along and upends every expectation. That someone is the Toni Erdmann of the title, a hulking, gregarious clown of a man played with a mischievous twinkle and a surfeit of shaggy soul by the Austrian actor Peter Simonischek.
Wearing an unsightly brown wig and a set of false teeth, Toni worms his way into Ines’ life and proceeds to improvise one straight-faced, squirm-inducing comic routine after another — some extended role play with her colleagues here, a casually detonated whoopee cushion there. Amid all the disguises and pratfalls, the blustery monologues and wolfish grins, he invites Ines to shrug off her anxieties and join him in the wild, crazy, never-ending performance art known as life.
The punchline, to which viewers are clued in from the start, is that Toni Erdmann doesn’t really exist; he’s a personality devised by Ines’ father, Winfried, a semi-retired music teacher with a bit too much time on his hands. He’s also the wild card in this magnificently unpredictable and expansive new movie from the German writer-director Maren Ade, who has taken an outlandish premise and spun it into something rich, strange and discomfitingly real.
Although it opens and closes in the German suburbs that Winfried calls home, most of the movie unfolds in Bucharest, where Ines has relocated for work. If the term “German comedy” sounds like a contradiction in terms, then “German comedy set in Romania” might strike you as downright perverse. Art-film lovers may recall visiting Bucharest on-screen before — perhaps in “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu,” “Tuesday, After Christmas” or some other downer classic of New Romanian cinema — but chances are they have never seen its drab office buildings and hotel rooms put to such hilariously counterintuitive use.
Ines has the unenviable job of overseeing a mass outsourcing plan for an oil-company CEO (Michael Wittenborn) who regards her with barely hidden contempt. Although fastidious and smart, she’s used to being interrupted, admonished and lusted after by the men she works with. Her demeaning treatment, plus the soul-crushing nature of the work itself, has pushed her well past the normal stress levels and into a deep existential malaise.
Enter Winfried, who, after suffering a personal loss, impulsively decides to close the gap between him and his only child. He and Ines don’t see each other much — even when she visits, she’s always on her phone — but that changes when Winfried turns up without warning in Bucharest, crashes a few company parties and sizes up her sorry situation. Before long he will unleash Toni Erdmann, who, posing as a freelance business coach (or, if the situation demands, a German ambassador), proceeds to turn much more than just Ines’ frown upside down.
Were this simply the story of a no-nonsense career woman and her screw-loose dad overcoming their estrangement through a broad style of performative therapy, it might have furnished a snappy assembly-line crowd-pleaser, with every laugh, tear and epiphany planted to erupt on cue. But “Toni Erdmann” is weirder, messier and vastly more intricate than that. Ade has an unusual gift for planting more than one idea in each frame; I don’t think there’s a single one of the movie’s 162 minutes that can be reduced to a single emotional beat or narrative function. That hefty running time isn’t a sign of indulgence, but integrity.
Starting with her 2005 debut feature, “The Forest for the Trees,” Ade’s sharp, exploratory style has marked her as one of the most promising talents to emerge from the Berlin School, a loosely defined movement in German cinema celebrated for its intimate, politically inflected realism. Her second film, “Everyone Else” (2009), was an unusually penetrating breakup drama conceived under the influence of John Cassavetes, and a terrific demonstration of her pointillist, tonally complex approach to storytelling. She uses every moment to nudge her characters to a very specific destination.
“Toni Erdmann,” which premiered in competition at Cannes and recently made the Oscar shortlist for best foreign-language film, is a decisive breakthrough. On one level it’s a movie of wonderfully grounded insanity, where a bit of business with a spoon or a cheese grater — or, kicking things up a notch, a room-service petit four — can suddenly become a catalyst for comic liftoff. The movie climaxes with two sensational, emotionally liberating set-pieces, one of them an immediate candidate for the greatest clothing-optional Bulgarian-cosplay party sequence of all time.
As Ines lowers her guard and allows her father not just to run wild, but to actually see what her life has become, “Toni Erdmann” keeps peeling back its own twitchy layers. You might be surprised, on a second viewing (which the movie amply rewards), by just how thoroughly and meaningfully the surface comedy seems to dissipate.
This isn’t just because Simonischek, a master farceur, gives even Toni’s nuttier shenanigans their own bizarrely persuasive logic. It’s more that his lunacy almost pales in absurdity beside the enshrined realities of workplace sexism and the hollow machinations of a 21st-century globalized economy. The gloomy isolation that defines Ines’ existence turns out to be all too real, in ways that not even a father’s loving rescue mission can entirely dispel.
“Are you happy?” Winfried asks his daughter — a kinder version of an earlier question: “Are you really a human?” Ade doesn’t presume to answer the first question on Ines’ behalf, but she and her lead actress leave no doubt as to the second. Hüller, in the finest screen performance I’ve seen all year, plays Ines with a seemingly infinite array of tight-lipped frowns and speechless reaction shots — a rich symphony of discontent that deepens, by film’s end, into a masterpiece of emotional revelation.
The final shot is a stunner — a wordless commingling of hope and heartache that, like so much else in “Toni Erdmann,” feels utterly sui generis. Here is a movie that walks in no one’s shadow.
In German, Romanian and English with English subtitles
Running time: 2 hours, 42 minutes
MPAA rating: R, for strong sexual content, graphic nudity, language and brief drug use
Playing: Nuart Theatre, West Los Angeles