German director Maren Ade, whose second film Everyone Else still feels like the secret discovery of 2008, has finally returned with a new film—and it is not only great, it's a also quite a surprise. Devoted with extreme sensitivity and patience to the stilted relationship between a professional young woman, Sandra Hüller's uptight, defensive Ines, and her sad sack, prankster father Winfried (Peter Simonischek), Toni Erdmann spends its considerable runtime observing how these two, by themselves and together, put up emotional shields to navigate unhappy lives.
On paper perhaps something of a cliché, with Ines’ repressed chill keeping her career successful, if just barely, but emotionally unsatisfied working a corporate consultancy job in Bucharest, and a father whose sudden appearance at her work is an awkward embarrassment. Yet this immensely talented director brings to each and every social interaction an observant, unmannered, and utterly spot-on evocation of what each person is thinking and feeling. This masterly ability to observe and reveal without overly directing our attention to what the father and daughter are going through extends just as beautifully to well-detailed secondary roles like that of Ines' arrogant boss, her frightened-eyed assistant, and an American girlfriend also living in the Romanian capital—a deft handling that goes all the way down to passing characters spied once and never again. Maren Ade proves herself a modest master of observation, letting us find on our own, casually and never didactically, how everyone in a scene is responding to each other and the circumstance.
Toni Erdmann’s precision of observation may make it sound like a normal drama done well, but in fact Ade keeps us on our toes throughout its near-3 hour run time. The film rides an at first unnoticeable but gradually increasingly apparent and difficult line of storytelling, courting our expectations of how a father-daughter story like this will go—with her embarrassment over her father’s antics and unprofessionalism coupled with his sweetly clueless, silent pleas for affection—but at every turn upending convention. Except, Ade does nothing radical, nothing unusual as her story moves; it simply moves freely, each development not quite how one would think it could go, yet never extreme enough to move into melodrama or some other heightened state that would leave the film’s calm, considerate humaneness behind.
Its attention, through and through, are to the nuances of a deeply unresolved relationship, one which a father’s impromptu sudden visit will hardly instantly fix. But the man is persistent and dogged, playing constantly with fake teeth, sarcastic humor and a barely hidden grin. He kindly tries, without much self-awareness, to ingratiate himself in situations, whether at a corporate party or in the strained, everyday conversations with his daughter, in which he is uncomfortable and doesn't fit in—which are most situations. He leaves, he returns, she sends him away, and he comes back, always with the sheepish, smiling look on his face. The film is, gratefully and painfully, very funny and very sad.
Winfried is trying and we like him for this, but we also don't know the full history of his uncomfortable relationship with his daughter—we simply feel it, deeply, just as we do Ines' depression and self-denial. Midway through, faced again with his daughter’s rejection, Winfried makes one of his goofy gestures of ill-placed humor, hilariously popping up at a bar behind his daughter in a ridiculous wig, the bad teeth, and an unkempt power suit and claims to be “Toni Erdmann,” a life coach visiting Bucharest. Even worse, this character starts showing up at his daughter’s social engagements and work—work, incidentally, that Ade treats with remarkable detail and realism, as we learn just what exactly Ines has to do and what she has to put up with at her awful consultancy job.
In another film, Winfried's almost farcical costume would transform the story into something else, as his daughter learns what lengths he’ll go to be with her. But no—it’s just another, more elaborate joke that’s trying to win a smile on her face, with no greater ambitions. To close her story, Ade admittedly have to bring things to a head, a birthday party the daughter pathetically throws for herself which doesn’t turn out a she plans, yet as always with the film, the way the situation shifts, catches us off guard, ending somewhere far different than where it began. The party, a constantly evolving situation of great humor and insight, does precisely what Maren Ade throughout does best and what makes Toni Erdmann great: never grasping for epiphanies but instead building over time, with warm patience and true perception, an incredibly rich portrait of people and their all-too-delicate relationships.
NOTEBOOK: It’s been eight years since your previous film, Everyone Else…
MAREN ADE: From the outside it may feel a bit like a gap. I took some time afterwards to work only as a producer. I have, with two colleagues, together we have a production company. I was involved in some projects very seriously and, in some projects, I don’t participate much or not at all.
After this I started writing on the project and it really took so long. I mean, it goes by very fast, two years, when writing a script that you also have to do research on. It was a long shoot and I had 100 hours of footage. It took one and a half years and, plus, I became mother twice. Actually, I continued working very fast so the children are not such a good excuse.
NOTEBOOK: What about this relationship between father and daughter inspired you?
ADE: I was interested in that family topic. Family for me sometimes is, or can be, something very static, or something very fixed. Everybody has their role over the years, their position, and it’s hard to escape. With Toni, with that character, or with the father inventing that character, I wanted to make a contrast with that and to make this thesis: how it would be if the two could meet again, as strangers, in order to renew their relationship. The father was there from the beginning. He also has some similarities with my own father, who likes to joke, or who has very good humor; and that was like the starting point. With Ines, with the female character, I thought, in the beginning, that I would choose something that has nothing to do with me. The world she works in was something I didn’t know much about. But, during the research, I found a lot of, let’s say, similarities and things I could identify with. It took a while, on one side, to have this special story, or this special relationship; and to create universal characters.
NOTEBOOK: Speaking of your research and the amount of footage shot, can you talk about your process writing the film?
ADE: The thing is, when writing, I’m very fast at writing so I produce much more than I need to. I have to always reduce things; and, also, with that business world, I had to, I didn’t know. Some things were longer, and we shot them longer, because I didn’t know how much a film can take of this. I didn’t know how boring it could be. But, when I reduced it, it just became too simple or too much of a side thing. So, it took a while. I met a lot of people who told me about the projects they work on. To find the right project is doing something that is not too simple and not too complicated, something that you can visualize. We also worked really hard with the actors on that. Every actor involved accompanied a consultant during their daily life.
NOTEBOOK: I guess this aspect also introduces, quite strongly, politics into a story that you could easily keep that out of.
ADE: They have different values. The father belongs to this, I think, very typical type in Germany, like post-war and authoritarian but still belonging to the middle class generation who wanted, for their children, something completely different from what they experienced with their parents. So all the values he once gave her, like the idea of a world without borders, or human values, humanity, or self-determination, as a woman, all that she uses now to do this job would actually be something that he would despise. She, on the other side, thinks his way of seeing the world is too simple or naive, or not complex enough anymore. So, with their jobs they brought this conflict into the film. I found it interesting because it’s a conflict for them as well; and, out of this conflict, it also has something to do with Toni: because Toni allows the father to, in a funny way, ok, but still, to tell, much more, what he thinks about her, or to attack her, also, in that kind of way.
NOTEBOOK: Toni Erdmann is frequently very funny. Did you look at anything specifically to inform the film’s humor?
ADE: I knew that I wanted this ‘playing a role,’ the father playing a role, to go very far with that. So, with that, I looked for comedians doing this, because comedians often have their alter egos, they work with that, and I got very addicted to Andy Kaufman, all he did. So I was watching this for weeks. It’s very interesting that he never left the role when he was once in. He was a very good actor, I think; not only a comedian but also very straight and he has that character, Tony Clifton, this bar singer, a very big, bad guy. So, the name of Toni, I had to make it clear that I liked this. With other films, I mean, I watched comedies, also old things, but, it was more this—comedians whom I found interesting.
NOTEBOOK: You treat secondary characters with great care and consideration. How do you flesh out these smaller roles?
ADE: That takes some time, that’s why the film is a bit longer, so you don’t just go over them very fast, so they have some more sentences. They’re all cast, even the waiter. Everybody who has a sentence; and also everybody who sometimes doesn’t have a sentence but brings something. It’s very important for me to cast. First, I have the main cast; and then I try to arrange the others around them. I do every casting with the main cast. For example, I was flying to Romania, to cast fifteen uncles together with Sandra, to find the perfect match for her. This is important. I also rehearse with them and try to fill them up with as much background as possible. With some characters finding the right person is everything. The waiter, for example, or the farmer on the oil field—he had never acted. He’s the only one who never acted. He was very good. It was big luck with him.
NOTEBOOK: You are also a film producer. Are there lessons from your experience producing that you bring to your set as director?
ADE: I think, for me, producing, it’s really interesting to see how others work; but everybody works differently. I think, on the other side, when we, as a company, produce someone’s film, we try to find out what is necessary for him to make a good movie, and not what would be the best [for us], not with a structure where the director has to fit in. This is what often happens. So, yes, I watch how the others are doing their thing. It’s so different, some like to rehearse, some don’t, some are very fast in certain parts of the production, some not. I enjoy, for example, now, when I’m finished, I’m very happy that we continue making films without me leading, so that I don’t have to be creative. I’m happy with that.
NOTEBOOK: Why did you want to introduce an element of the fantastic towards the end of an otherwise “realist” film?
ADE: I was interested in choosing a costume where he’s almost gone, where he’s not there anymore: a costume that shows his inner feelings, or how he is inside. I had the feelings turning around inside out with that [fantastic costume], in this warm thing. I researched costumes from Romania and it’s from Bulgaria, so I thought it’s ok because I liked it so much I had to take it. It’s very high, three meters, it’s a very impressive thing. It’s a bit odd, like E.T. or something. It really works as something you think it’s alive, but, the thing is that, the head of the thing is carried here [touches both sides of her jaw], so you have this range of movements, and this make it so human, in a way.
This interview was filmed by Chiara Marañón and Kurt Walker at the Cannes Film Festival. Watch it here.