Maren Ade on female filmmakers & Toni Erdmann

Feature by Jamie Dunn | 01 Feb 2017

International comedy smash Toni Erdmann is a shaggy-dog story about a father and daughter that's both biting and tender. Director Maren Ade explains how she shaped this most singular of films

German filmmaker Maren Ade is sitting in one of London’s fanciest West End hotels, but the room we’ve been given for our interview hardly radiates glamour. Office conference room is more the vibe, which is rather apt as much of Toni Erdmann, the new film Ade is here to discuss, takes place in similar corporate environments. Ade herself, wearing a sharp navy blazer, looks similarly businesslike, although, like Toni Erdmann, looks can be deceiving.

The film, set mostly in Romania and centered on the prickly relationship between a father and daughter, is billed as a comedy, but it bears few of the genre's hallmarks. There’s the length, for one thing, which pushes two hours. Most Hollywood comedies grind to a halt after 100 minutes or stretch molasses-like to that same runtime whether their stories require it or not.

Then there are the naturalistic performances, the unadorned score, the handheld camera, the long scenes. Toni Erdmann just doesn’t look or feel like a laugh riot. Catch it on TV while channel-hopping and you might even confuse it for a sober business drama. Watch for a few minutes, however, and you’ll realise it does cut the comedy mustard in one significant respect: it’s funny as hell.

Perhaps the director’s unusually meticulous preparation – Toni Erdmann was five years in the making – gives some clues as to the film’s singular rhythms. “I rehearse a lot,” explains Ade. “I think it’s really important that I meet with the actors, they get to know each other, and I get to know them.” Standard movie practice is that actors come in and act their part as written. Ade’s method is to use these extensive rehearsals to tailor the characters to fit the shape of the actors. “With such a realistic film, you need to work with what the actors are,” she explains, “so you have to know who they are to know when they are acting. It’s very simple.”

Ade’s technique is so holistic that she then uses her lead actors as a guide to choosing the supporting cast. “When we were reading the script we were making a lot of casting decisions for the other roles together,” she tells us. Even more unusual is that Ade writes new scenes especially for these casting sessions as she doesn’t want the actors to use up all their good takes during the casting process. “These scenes become like a side world that will not be in the film in the end, but that’s also a bit like rehearsing.” It’s no wonder the characters feel fully lived-in by the time they make it to the screen.

Winfried in character as ‘Toni Erdmann’

Ade’s starting point for the film was the father, Winfried (Peter Simonischek), a prankster who carries Austin Powers-style false teeth around in his shirt pocket, should the need arise to lighten the mood. His daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller) seems to share little of her father’s joie de vivre. She’s a no-nonsense business consultant with an all-consuming job helping to downsize the Romanian branch of an international conglomerate. After visiting Ines in Bucharest, Winfried invents the grotesque alter-ego of the title, a supposed life coach, so he can insinuate himself into Ines’ social circles in an effort to get her to lighten up. “I wasn’t sure if it was a comedy at first,” says Ade, “but I did know that this was a father trying to make a comedy for his daughter.”

Ines, however, isn’t laughing as her embarrassing dad shambles into her office and meetings with his ridiculous alter-ego, and that’s where the comedy stems from – an awkwardness so toe-curling that even Larry David might have to look away. Throughout, Ade plays a delicate tonal balancing act. As uproarious as some of the film’s set-pieces are, the film never spills over into caricature; the performances remain deadpan throughout, and the fourth-wall remains intact. There’s no Will Ferrell-like surrealism or Melissa McCarthy-esque pratfalls.

Ade explains that the writing process was a constant back-and-forth of excess and restraint. “I said to myself: ‘OK, now you can write down everything you want, think of the most crazy situations and stupid dialogues,’ like go over the top as much as I like. But then, after that, I was my own art police. I went back through it and made sure that you would believed it all, that you still see Winfried.”

This, we suggest to Ade, is the key to the film’s success. That no matter how outlandish the situation, you always think of Winfried as a real person trying to act. “Exactly,” says the 40-year-old director. “And that’s what makes it emotional or risky for him. I was always taking care that Winfried’s performance as Toni was not too inventive and that it’s never the actor who wants to be funny, it always has to be the character, or something happens to the character that is funny, or a character starts something and doesn't know how to stop it. If I had lost the psychological development you would have stopped identifying, and if you stop identifying it’s not as funny.”

Like all great comedy directors, from Charlie Chaplin to Ernst Lubitsch to Elaine May to Woody Allen to Noah Baumbach, Ade recognises that the dividing line between comedy and tragedy is paper thin. “A lot of the things that are funny later in the film are actually very desperate moments for the character,” she observes, “so when working on it we talked a lot about desperation. It was more that I thought, ‘Yeah, this might be very funny in the end, but at the moment it’s not important to think about it being funny.’”

She gives an example of this principle from the excruciating set-piece late in the movie which sees Ines inexplicably decide to tell her work colleagues that the brunch she’s throwing will be a team building exercise that involves everyone coming to the party in the buff. “Imagine if the boss was standing naked in the doorway and would have in his mind that he was funny,” she says. “That would have killed it. That thought was completely forbidden on set. Sometimes it felt much more dramatic on shooting days than it was in the end.”

If you haven’t already guessed, Toni Erdmann is a complete one-off. Even the central subject matter of a father-daughter relationship feels novel, given it’s so rarely explored on screen. The few examples that do spring to mind tend to be simplistic action thrillers where the patriarch is required to save his little girl from some horrible fate – think the Taken series or Commando. Ade points out that what Winfried is trying to do isn’t a million miles away from what Liam Neeson or Arnold Schwarzenegger are doing in those films.

“Winfried does try to be the action hero, in a way, but [Ines] just doesn’t want to get rescued. I found it funny… well not funny, it’s mostly sad that he has the feeling he should do something to help her be happy, but he has no weapons any more so he doesn’t know how to approach her. He just has the feeling that he’s kind of lost her in a way.”

We ask Ade why she thinks there have been so few interesting films centred on father-daughter relationships. Her answer is blindingly obvious: “For me it’s so normal to do father-daughter; father-son I know nothing about. It’s maybe simply because there are not enough women filmmakers.”

Toni Erdmann is released 3 Feb by Soda Pictures