There are certain things which, as an adult, you just don’t want your parents to see. Being patronized by a client at work ranks fairly high on the list, serving wine stark naked at your own birthday party even higher. Winfried (Peter Simonischek) witnesses his daughter (Sandra Hüller) do both of these and more in Toni Erdmann, a film in which conventional boundaries of privacy, propriety, perhaps even sanity, break down completely. This is the third feature from German writer-director Maren Ade—her first in seven years—and while the basic set-up of a prankster father dropping in unannounced on his workaholic daughter might sound familiar, the film is incomparable to anything you’ve seen before: supremely awkward, spectacularly funny and deeply moving in unexpected ways and startling proportions.
The first time we see Winfried and Ines (Hüller) in a room together, she’s making a seemingly reluctant pit stop in suburban Germany on her way back to Bucharest, where she works as a business consultant. She’s glued to her phone and he’s genuinely worried that her globalized corporate lifestyle is not only impeding her general well-being, but transforming her into a drone in a suit. “Are you even human?” he asks her quite seriously at one point.
So he does what any concerned parent would do: shows up in the lobby of her Romanian office building equipped with nothing but his favorite pair of false teeth. But when his attempts at straightforward bonding fall flat, he ups the ante by posing as his alter-ego, “Toni Erdmann.” Sporting the aforementioned teeth and a terrible, terrible wig, he introduces himself as a “consultant and coach” to Ines’ colleagues, clients, and friends, crashing social engagements and tagging along to her business meetings.
Just as Winfried gleefully eschews accepted codes of behavior, Ade similarly throws the rulebook of conventional storytelling out the window. Coming in at just under three hours, Toni Erdmann takes the time it needs—no less, no more—to thoroughly unpack the nuances of this particular (and unceasingly peculiar) father-daughter relationship. With Toni Erdmann in theaters, and on dozens of year-end best-of lists and the Foreign-Language Oscar shortlist, we spoke over the phone with Ade about alternate personas, false teeth, and Andy Kauffman wrestling ladies.
Brooklyn Magazine: You’ve said in past interviews that the first inkling of an idea for the film came from your own father—the fake teeth Toni Erdmann wears, at least, was something specific he did. How did you move from this small gag to such a complex character and story?
Maren Ade: It was a really long journey. It is true that my father has quite a good repertoire of humor and jokes. I did borrow from him these jokes with the teeth; this is something he really did for a while. More broadly, I liked [the idea of] this little moment of transformation, of trying to become something else. And the idea that because he’s a real person, he can’t stay long in this character, I found that interesting. I’ve also been interested in exploring this family topic for a while: the idea that everyone in a family has to play a certain role, whether they like it or not. Or just the fact that you can change so much in your life but not where you come from.
It’s so hard to say what was first; there never is just one first idea, but this notion of transformation was there from the beginning. He transforms himself into Toni Erdmann to come closer to his daughter—to start from zero in a way—in order to get to know her again.
One thing I love about this film is the freedom you grant the audience to infer whatever they want about the characters’ pasts: about Ines’ childhood and how her relationship with her father has progressed and changed over the years. From what I’ve read you didn’t discuss backstories with your actors at all, which is really surprising to hear, given how carefully calibrated these characters feel.
Well, in the end when you’re shooting a film, two actors are coming together in front of the camera and they have to play at something—it’s most important what the result is, what I see as a director. So I don’t care so much where they take it from, or what an actor is thinking about a backstory, because in a way, it doesn’t help. I work better by trying out variations—it leads to something more complex. Because a lot of what’s going on in Toni Erdmann happens on the subconscious level. What happens on the surface is very banal in a way—or very simple. So it was more about working with different layers, trying something again and again, repeating scenes in different ways. The film is psychological, but the way we worked on it was almost the opposite: we were trying to work in the moment.
The now-infamous scene where Winfried kind of coaxes Ines into performing “The Greatest Love of All” for a room full of strangers is a good example of something that invites us to impose past events onto these characters without ever being explicitly given the details. They’ve obviously done this before, perhaps in her childhood.
Yeah, when she sings that song I think everyone gets the picture of how they were singing it together when she was younger—and maybe it was the other way around, like she would force him to play it over and over. But with that scene it was clear we had to find the right version of how she’s singing and what’s happening. That’s a good example of a scene where we didn’t talk about what’s happened in the past or whatever. It’s so far away so it doesn’t help to do that in a way.
For all her frustration at her father’s antics, there are some moments in the movie where Ines actually finds him very funny in spite of herself. One of my favorite scenes is when he first shows up as Toni in a restaurant where she’s having drinks with her friends and he launches into talking about a turtle funeral. It feels like the actors are prodding each other as much as characters. Was there a lot of cracking when you were shooting?
Well, for Peter [Simonischek] especially it was a really thin line he had to walk. With Toni, who has this very loud appearance, it was still necessary to convey what he wants for his daughter: he’s not just making a joke, he really wants her to get something out of it. And we also needed to show that it’s dangerous for her, she’s at risk to lose her job.
Very often the scenes that I found funny on set were not the scenes that I found funny later. When shooting I decided the comedy wasn’t that important, in a way. I decided if it doesn’t turn out funny later… well, too bad. I wrote it half as a comedy but the most important thing was that the drama that lies under the story came through, because he plays the comedy out of desperation: it’s a serious thing. So it was important that this worked and sometimes it was a bit disappointing: we had these scenes I thought were very funny in the script and on set it was like, ah shit, we have to concentrate on the question of what he wants from her. But I was happy that in the editing, the comedy came back into play.
The comedy in the film is as much a narrative device as it is a kind of philosophical topic: can this extended joke save their relationship? Does humor help or hinder communication? I read that you did a lot of research on Andy Kaufman while working on the script, which is interesting and fitting because he never considered himself a comic in the traditional sense.
Yeah, Andy Kaufman for me was more a performer. What I found so interesting about him was that he really tried out his characters in real life. Like Tony Clifton, for example, he really went out into the world as him: [Kauffman] denied his whole life that he was that guy, Tony Clifton had his own agent, etc. So he really played with that second identity. I was also interested in the way he worked with humor; humor is a whole language and can be used in so many different ways. It can be used to find a new form of communication, it can be used to make people laugh, but it can also be aggressive, used to get rid of things, or say things you wouldn’t say otherwise.
What Andy Kauffman did was important to me. A lot of comedians have an alter ego, but I thought he was a really modern thinker. This thing he did wrestling women [“Andy Wrestles The Ladies”] I really liked. He made himself into this inter-gender wrestling king and he would travel the US challenging women by insulting them, saying they should only be taking care of the children and so on, until the woman stood up to wrestle him. There were a lot of things he did that I found radical and interesting.
It’s a huge compliment that most writers and critics haven’t been able to come up with many comparisons for your movie, nor have they really imposed influences or references onto your work. I’d be curious to hear what you watch for inspiration, either for this film or more generally.
What I watch when I’m not working, I don’t tell to anyone [laughs]. But for Toni Erdmann I watched a lot of screwball comedies, like Bringing Up Baby, to see how the film works. Toni Erdmann is much slower of course, but in terms of the rhythm, and going from one location to the next, that was important. I also watched a lot of movies that I myself watched as a child—that was an interesting thing—like I watched E.T. again. And there was a French film I liked a lot called Mon Pere De Heros—My Father the Hero—which is also a kind of role-play movie about a 14-year-old-girl and her father at a Club Med. I think for me, though, what inspires me can be different things—like a stage play or a book—I’m not the type of director who knows every film.
I also wanted to ask you about the locations: these spaces Ines inhabits in Bucharest feel totally soulless, very modern and eerily temporary: her apartment, the office, that mall.
Bucharest as a whole made a lot of sense for her job because it has a strong economic connection with Germany: they had to sell a lot at the end of communism, so it made sense for the consultants going abroad. I was interested in seeing what globalization and capitalism does to a relationship. Also it was interesting to see the relationship between countries within Europe, like a German going abroad and telling them what to do. I found it interesting to see how these hierarchies between the countries continue within the multi-national companies and to ask questions, like is this actually what we want? There were several political aspects and questions that I don’t have answers to or make a clear statement about, because on the one hand I don’t have the answers, and on the other I think it’s more interesting to ask a question rather than make a statement.
Visually, the movie feels very free, very naturalistic, like the camera is just ready to follow the actors wherever they spontaneously decide to move. Is this how it felt on set or did you storyboard more than the film lets on?
I want the cameraman anticipating. He’s in every rehearsal and becomes a third actor in a way. It’s choreographed but it’s not that we first choreograph the camera and then the actors have to fit into it, it’s the other way around. I figure out where’s the best place in the room for the actors to behave and interact and the camera follows them. Because of that, we try to spend as much time as possible in rehearsal so it becomes second nature.
The film ends very deliberately on a quiet downbeat. In that final third, it seems like the credits might role earlier—after the big scene where they finally hug, or when Winfried is collapsed on the ground in the Kukeri costume.
[Laughs] Usually I don’t like that when films go on and on at the end.
Did you have to fight to get the ending you wanted?
No, that’s the good thing about being your own producer. And actually I never tried it out to put the credits after the hugging scene. It would have killed the whole film for me. The hug would have been the final message and it would have been very disappointing in a way. It’s important that the characters go back to real life. I liked the idea that these two people have done so much just to come a little bit closer. I also don’t think that [Ines] should change her life, or that [Winfried] is necessarily “right.” So it was very important not to end there.
I also like the idea that like, although he gave her so much already by doing this whole “Toni Erdmann” thing, that he’s still so insecure as a father that he feels he should still give her a proper fatherly answer about what makes life worth living. He already gave that answer, but he doesn’t know that he did. Also I thought, it’s only ten more minutes, it’s long anyway [laughs].