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From Cinema Scope #67 (Summer 2016)
A Battle of Humour: Maren Ade on Toni Erdmann
By Mark Peranson
Of all the notable omissions in the Cannes awards this year, zilch for Maren’s Ade’s third feature Toni Erdmann stands out as the most egregious in the 15 years I’ve been attending the festival. To nobody’s surprise, it racked up a 3.7 in the Screen Daily chart, the highest in recorded Cannes history (albeit edging out Mr. Turner from two years back), and everyone’s new hero Ade won the FIPRESCI award from the international critics. Aside from a few French holdouts, Toni Erdmann was far and away the consensus pick as the film of the festival, a true success of script, acting, and directing that manages to be fully German and universal at the same time, a film that received as close to universal acclaim as it gets in Cannes. Despite the 162-minute running time, which I’m sure some will hold against it, it’s easy to explain why. For starters, there are generally few laugh-out-loud films in film festivals (let alone funny German films), and Toni Erdmann, even if it’s not a comedy per se, is at times laugh-out-loud funny; it’s genuinely unpredictable, especially in its climactic act (an uproarious set-piece party that, however tempted I may be, I shall not spoil); it features two crackerjack lead performances from Peter Simonischek and Sandra Hüller; and finally, there’s the fact that pretty much every critic, wherever they are from, is a child, a parent, or both, and on this count the film tugs at the heartstrings pretty hard.
The triumph of Toni Erdmann also comes as little surprise to anyone who saw Ade’s last film Everyone Else, which won the Silver Bear in Berlin way back in 2009. (Or her 2003 debut The Forest for the Trees, whose graffiti-strewn original poster, featuring blacked-out teeth on Eva Löbau’s protagonist, brings to mind one of Toni Erdmann’s prominent gags.) Toni Erdmann has a lot in common with Ade’s earlier film, initially posing as a game of shifting perspectives and encouraging the audience to identify and sympathize with the points of view of both of the film’s main characters as they reveal—and are made conscious of—the roles they are playing. In the first act, this is mainly Winfried (Simonischek), an aging schoolteacher with a crippled dog, whose identity is so associated with his predilection for pranks that even at the most uncalled-for times it’s hard for him to avoid provocation. (He’s characterized by the false teeth he inserts and removes from his mouth as if by habit, as if he is totally unaware; it becomes an unconscious act.) At a family gathering he meets his daughter, the seemingly unflappable Ines (Hüller, always good but never better than here), who we quickly understand harbours an estrangement, and a long-standing sense of embarrassment, for her father’s lowbrow antics. (Winfried sees Ines so rarely that he jokes to strangers that he has had to hire someone as a “substitute daughter.”) The second and third acts, which unfold in Bucharest, where Ines is temporarily employed as a consultant to an oil company looking to streamline, becomes more her story. After a bumpy reunion, what she calls “the worst weekend of my life” to her friends, “Winfried” is replaced by a bewigged lookalike who calls himself “Toni Erdmann.” A more overt game is played with the same characters under a different set of rules, initially one-sided until Ines, who herself has unconsciously assumed, or internalized, the role of the prototypical German businessperson, spontaneously decides to take things to the next level.
Most of the action in Bucharest is in some way related to the sexist business milieu and set in lifeless, neo-European locations (hotel rooms, office buildings, bland apartments, horribly tacky bars and restaurants; it’s almost unbelievable to think that in a communist-era apartment block a few kilometres away a wake is being staged by Cristi Puiu, with another aging clown named Toni); but this is the new Europe. (One of the exceptions comes in another stunning set piece set at an Easter family celebration involving one real-time warbling Whitney Schnuck; again, I won’t say more, only that this apartment contains the semblance of authentic life, as opposed to the transient business existence mostly presented elsewhere.) In other words, in a daring move by Ade, almost everything generally considered as beautiful is drained from the mise en scène so as not to distract us from what matters, which are the actors/characters and their complicated relationship. Winfried is completely out of place in this environment, so much so that when he first arrives (unexpectedly) to greet Ines, she struts past him in the lobby of her building as if he wasn’t even there. She later explains she was with colleagues, so she had to ignore him, which sets up the further adventures of Toni Erdmann: life coach, high-powered businessman, German ambassador, Kukeri.
Though her father’s arrival throws her off her game—she makes a few faux pas in conversation with her client, sleeps through an important phone call, and blames Winfried for her errors—more than him causing her embarrassment Ines does a pretty good job of embarrassing herself. (Though during an extremely uncomfortable sex scene, par for the course for Ade, she gets off on embarrassing her partner.) Winfried’s antics are partly a result of his concern, as he senses that Ines isn’t happy in her life (and Huller does a fine job of appearing consistently agitated and downright miserable); before leaving her apartment to head to the airport, Winfried asks her, half-jokingly yet razor-sharp, “Are you really a human?” (This line is echoed later, after a successful business presentation, when her boss beams at her, “You’re an animal, Ines.”) But Winfried/Toni’s presence also makes Ines realize that he has a point, readily apparent in scene in a nightclub where her kind-of boyfriend behaves like a moron, pouring champagne from a bottle at crotch-level. Ines comes to be embarrassed by her friends’ behaviour as well, until she has the confidence—which, as the sex scene proves, was inside her all along—to willingly sacrifice herself on the altar of humiliation. Ines’ party is a wonderfully mounted mix of embarrassment, humiliation, a power exercise, and a climactic resolution, and is such an inventive moment because of the way Ade first mixes the public and the private and then builds on it by adding an element of the surreal.
Ade’s triumph is to locate the obfuscated humanity in both of these characters: under Toni’s wig and Ines’ full-body force field are a father and daughter, and Ade reveals what they look like naked. In the film’s necessary coda, back in Germany for another family gathering (this time a funeral), Winfried and Ines have one of those conversations that seemingly summarize the dramatic action and point the way to a life-altering resolution. (“Life is so often about getting things done…how are we supposed to hold on to moments?”) Ines shows she hasn’t “lost her humour” by taking Winfried’s false teeth and placing them in her mouth, letting her guard down, but as Winfried runs to get a camera to capture this special moment, Ines shuffles around, removes the teeth, and, again, tightens up her face, assuming her familiar, dejected pose. There are no such easy resolutions in life, Ade is telling us, and despite all that they’ve gone through there’s just as likely a chance that the next time father and daughter meet, whether it’s in Germany or Ines’ new work home of Singapore, it might very well be like nothing ever happened in Bucharest. It will exist as a memory that elicits a smile, but will recede quickly into the grey matter. Because in the game of life, the banal and the consistent trump the extraordinary, and there are no easy resolutions.
Cinema Scope: Everyone Else premiered in Berlin in 2009, and now seven years later your third film is finally receiving its debut in Cannes. What took so long?
Maren Ade: Directly after Everyone Else, I started working as a producer. I have a company called Komplitzen Film with Janine Jackowski and Jonas Dornbach, so this took up some time, but it also really took so long to write the script for Toni Erdmann. It took me one and a half or almost two years. Then we had to do the financing, and I was in Romania for five months preparing. It was almost one year dealing with the shooting, and after that I had more than 100 hours of footage and I had to edit it, and again that took one and a half years. And I became a mother twice during all of that. But for me time went by very fast.
Scope: Most filmmakers tend to work once every year or two years, and often one feels that there wasn’t a lot of work put into the final product. This film feels like there was a great deal of effort involved every step of the way, as you said, in the writing, the shooting, and the editing. First could you talk about writing the script—did it begin with the idea of a father and a daughter? Did you do research?
Ade: For sure, the father-daughter thing was there in the beginning, but I didn’t have the real conflict between the two of them. I had this idea that he was kind of a practical joker, and I wanted to have a female character who would have a completely different occupation than me, namely working in the business world. In the beginning I wasn’t sure what job she would have. I wanted her to work abroad, so I started to do a lot of research on women working in management positions. I had to find the right company, and the right job she was doing…I was a bit lucky that I came across this idea of a consultant. A consultant is interesting to me because a significant part of that job is that you have to perform—you really have to play a role. I found it much stronger than a normal management position. It meshed very well with the father character, as he starts a performance as well in the film. Then I did longer research on humour, or on comedy and comedians. I spent a lot of time with Andy Kaufman on the internet, because it took four weeks to Google everything about Andy Kaufman.
Scope: So Toni Erdmann somehow alludes to Tony Clifton?
Ade: Yeah, and I especially liked this very funny wrestling thing he did, and the great book [Dear Andy Kaufman, I Hate Your Guts] with all the angry letters that women wrote him about that…I also looked at some German comedians. So I had to write, then research, and then write again. For example, this business presentation that Ines gives in the film was the hardest work for me, because I had to understand everything about the business issues, about her options, in order to write it. I wanted her to do a project that is complicated but not too complicated, and also it took a while to find that oil business, because I visited several companies in Romania. But luckily I decided on Bucharest very fast. I think almost every scene is written for a location, so it’s not that I wrote a scene, and then found everything later. I first had to go to these nightclubs before writing the scene set there; I couldn’t imagine a scene like that.
Scope: You were scouting the locations while you were writing the script?
Ade: I was in Romania visiting places, going out to bars, going to dinner, visiting hotels, and locations, and then I went back to writing. I did that two or three times.
Scope: The spaces in the film are very striking. I know you probably didn’t see Cristi Puiu’s Sieranevada, which is also about family relations, and it’s set maybe a few kilometres away from where your film is shot, but the films are a universe apart, not just geographic space but also time. You have these sterile or cheesy spaces, in-between spaces that suit these characters who are dislocated. What kind of feeling were you after from these locations?
Ade: It’s a bit cruel there in Romania, as on one side there is what you and I think is Romania, and then you have these other places, which are not only for ex-pats, but they are places for the Romanian upper class. There is a small number of very rich people in Bucharest—we have rich people in Berlin but they don’t show it, you know. I’ve never been in a city where I saw so many really expensive cars and so on…you have this very cruel gap. On one side, I do like that they like this over-the-top thing, but on the other side you could be anywhere. The sad thing about Bucharest is that when you drive around, you see all these things that are borrowed from other countries, all these franchises, Austrian and German companies; you feel like they sold themselves to the richer part of Europe as well as America. And the hierarchy that you have between the Germans and the Romanians inside of the companies in terms of nationality still exists—even though the Germans may have the better know-how, this attitude should be changed. So there were several things that were interesting about Romania. Corneliu Porumboiu helped me with the research, as did Ada Solomon, so I had some contacts there. Corneliu had some friends who worked as consultants. Through him actually I found a German woman working as a consultant, who coincidentally lives around the corner from me in Berlin, but I found her in Bucharest. She was very open and helped me. Afterwards Sandra was able to learn from her; she did a job that’s very close to what is in the script.
Scope: Did you have Sandra Hüller and Peter Simonischek in mind when you were writing?
Ade: No, there was a long casting process with several actors, and several combinations, but they were the best. I really like to have a long casting process. There was not a single role where I didn’t audition at least ten actors. And I flew to Bucharest to cast the other roles—like Ines’ assistant Anca is the perfect Anca for Sandra, and we have the perfect Flavia for Peter and so on. I like casting because it’s a good chance to find out something about the characters and the relationships. I feel it’s almost a part of the rehearsal process.
Scope: Would you say the characters changed, or were they as they were written on the page?
Ade: During the casting I really work with the actors, so in the end I have something very close to what I want. But it’s sometimes very difficult in the shooting to get back to what we had in the casting, even if it was something very simple. You’re on the set and you think, “Huh, we had it before. It was very easy but all of a sudden it doesn’t work any more,” because you repeat something that simply doesn’t feel fresh and then you have to take another way to come back in the end to what you want.
Scope: Are there elements in Winfried that are based on your own father?
Ade: Yeah. My father is really a very humorous guy; he likes to joke a lot. I was doing my volunteer service in Munich when I was 20 and I had a ticket for the premiere of the first Austin Powers film, and as a giveaway they handed out these false teeth, and I gave them as a present to my father. And since then he makes jokes with these teeth. So the teeth thing is really something I borrowed from him, and the rest…well, it’s not him. But he has a good humour and that really accompanied me.
Scope: It’s a very strange habit, this thing with the teeth. I don’t think I’ve seen that in a film before, and it signifies that this idea of being a prankster is part of himself, and not something he can turn on or turn off. But when he changes in the second part of the film, he makes an intentional, conscious decision to play a different person, an entirely different character, fully…
Ade: We worked a lot on this idea, so that when he appears as “Toni” it’s a surprise, and it’s a big step that he’s doing this, but it happens in a way that it’s believable. I spent three shooting days on the scene working with Peter, which is a really, really long time, because I knew that if the audience wouldn’t believe that, if the scene didn’t work, then you could throw away the film. It wasn’t so easy for Peter because he had to play Winfried and not Toni—it’s not a double role, you know, it’s not like he’s playing two guys, he’s Winfried playing Toni. Sometimes while shooting he was a bit sad that he wasn’t allowed to play the role more over the top…Peter had to walk a very thin line.
Scope: You said you had more than 100 hours of footage, and I know you like to shoot many takes. When you do multiple takes are they different takes with actors trying out new things, different camera placement or movement?
Ade: It’s more like finding how everything comes perfectly together. Sometimes it’s more the acting, sometimes the flow of the camera. Maybe you don’t feel it too much because of the focus on two characters, but there are almost 2,000 extras in the film, as well as little side characters, so there’s that, too. I tried to arrange the action of every scene almost the whole way through, even if it was long. For example, in the party at the end, the last shot was ten minutes long. I would need one week of preparation to get it perfect, but I took longer parts and broke them down. What’s happening with the energy of the actors is interesting, and I wanted to give them the chance to lead a scene, or experience a reality. If you stop too often, the film reality doesn’t happen, because you always feel like you’re shooting a film.
I tried to get both very free acting and this thing that the actors should be in the moment as well at the same time be aware of the subtext—because for my films the subtext generates the main conflict. It has to be very precise or things fall apart. In other words, they need to be aware what their characters actually think, feel, or mean compared to what they say or what they pretend they are. Let’s say I don’t find the one perfect thing during the shooting, but I have a feeling of what could be right, and then I want to have at least two good other options because maybe I’ll need them in the editing. A lot of times when I’m sitting in the editing room, I’m thinking, “Oh shit, this was wrong,” so I can’t rely completely on myself during the shooting.
Scope: So it’s not a question of perfection, say in the Kubrickian sense, in that you know what you want and shoot it over and over until you get what you want, until you get it right…
Ade: No, no, I don’t work like that at all. For me it’s more like finding something out. If I would know what the perfect or right thing was, it would take me half of the time to shoot the film. I think it makes the film better when you try to be open to what happens, or try to see what happens, and integrate things but not lose the focus. Also in terms of rhythm and so on, it’s very risky that you lose the rhythm of the scene. Usually we would do a scene ten or 12 times from one perspective. Sandra said in an interview that she did each scene 30 or 40 times, so that’s basically true…but it’s not that much different from working in theatre. I could do even more takes!
Scope: To what degree in this film is your goal reaching a point where the audience can identify with your characters? This is where Everyone Else and Toni Erdmann are similar, though Toni Erdmann goes one step further. In Everyone Else, who the viewer identifies with goes and back and forth, but it’s different because there it’s a romantic relationship and here it’s a father and daughter, with a different set of baggage. Watching as a viewer and a critic, I’m reluctant to be caught up that way in a film, because sometimes that can be too easy, but I have no problem with that in your films, and it’s interesting to consider why that is. Maybe it’s because you don’t privilege either character’s perspective.
Ade: I always want that when there are two characters, there are two sides. I don’t like identification when you don’t feel free anymore. But you feel free because you can decide which one of the characters you identify with, and it’s even freer because these characters have not decided on things themselves—this is really important for me. On the other side, I come as close as possible to their conflict. It’s not like I say I want identification—some films do this, that’s not my main intention—it’s more that I want to try to create the situation where I can look behind the characters, or that there is always something more going on than the things they say. People ask me how I create this awkward feeling and so on, and I think that more than the film itself being awkward, this sense of awkwardness more comes out of the fact that you maybe find yourself in the characters. For me a film has to be something where you walk around a little bit, so identification without freedom doesn’t work for me.
Scope: Is the freedom something that you get not only because of the length of the film, but also the length of the scenes? You allow the interactions to play out longer than you would find in a typical film.
Ade: That’s what I found out when I tried to shorten the film; it gets very banal and less complex. The film needed a certain length…it just takes time. The more that you want to say, the more time you need. And when I tried to cut the film down, it was really astonishing to me, and very frightening, how fast you can ruin the whole film. The moment you take out 20 minutes, then you have the father coming, he’s an idiot, she’s a businesswoman…it gets very simple, very fast. It takes film time to be able to look at certain things.
Scope: Was there pressure to make it shorter?
Ade: Not really. You know, sometimes there is this rush in the editing to finish for a festival, but I don’t like when I have a feeling the film is not edited until the end. I wanted to be 100 percent sure because I had to defend the length. I have to say, “I’m sorry it has to be 150 minutes,” and I needed to find that out to be sure. I finished so close to Cannes because I took a lot of time deciding on the editing. If I were maybe a little faster on that, it wouldn’t have been so close. The thing I stretched was the editing and not the rest of the post-production.
Scope: You mentioned researching comedy and Andy Kaufman. If you think the film is a comedy, which maybe isn’t an easy answer, maybe you can address the idea of German comedies, why they aren’t so successful or exported. Do you watch a lot of German comedies?
Ade: This is the question I’ve been asked a lot of times…
Scope: I’m surprised people care.
Ade: I don’t know much about German comedies…we have great comedians in Germany; it’s not that we don’t have a tradition of being funny. I think most of the comedies that are made try to copy American comedies, maybe, and then you get a strange mixture that doesn’t work anymore. For me it’s my personal humour in the film, and I’m German, okay, but actually for a long time I haven’t watched a German comedy. And, you know, I don’t think the film is a comedy. It’s a drama where you laugh sometimes. It’s so funny that people are calling it a comedy.
Scope: I’m also interested in what you think is German about the film in terms of behaviour, especially regarding Ines. It’s not just the role that she’s in, but also the fact that she’s a German. If she were another nationality, maybe she would behave differently throughout the film.
Ade: Especially in the business world, a German woman has to deny a bit that she is a woman. It’s common that you have to behave a bit masculine, and not show any feelings. In Romania there’s a greater percentage of women working in high positions in business than in Germany, and they wear make-up, high heels…that was something very surprising to me, this image of a powerful woman who also wears pink. But the father for me is very German, as a member of the postwar generation who had this strong conflict with the generation that came before; it was very clear for them who the enemy was and what should never ever happen again. The father for me is not a “hippie guy,” as his code of values is very middle-class, he’s bürgerlich. This older guy joking is someone you can find in every country though—it’s almost a genre in itself, the funny 65-year-old.
Scope: There seem to be some other specific German elements, like life coaches; I’m not sure if it happens in other cultures. People getting professional advice as to how to behave in professional situations seems to be very German to me.
Ade: In other countries there are more women working in the business world; it doesn’t suit the picture of Germany. Though we have a female chancellor…but she has to be masculine to succeed.
Scope: Does this relate at all to the rather uncomfortable sex scene between Ines and her co-worker Tim in the hotel room?
Ade: For me this scene is a battle of humour, actually. He’s saying “Ha, ha, we spoke about that, that’s why I fuck you,” and she says, “No, I don’t want to lose my bite,” then he says, “Come on, don’t be so humourless.” It’s a misunderstanding between them, but it’s also a kind of duel. He asks, “Ha ha, do you find this funny,” and that’s what interests me about this scene. And she tries a bit to be a “Toni,” or something like that. She’s not in the mood any more, and it’s not her problem that he’s in the mood. So she’s just doing nothing. I don’t think she’s refusing. Okay, there is this thing with the petit four, but he could just say no when she asks him to do that…Some people think it’s her being dominant, but no, she’s trying to be funny.
Scope: So it’s not a question of power for you, more her just reacting in the moment?
Ade: It’s always a question of power, but for me it was more that she is refusing something. We worked for a very long time on the scene, and I think the best version was always when she was astonished that he does what he does in the end with the petit four. And people are laughing, which I think is the correct reaction. And the Tim character is not someone we need to sympathize with, so it’s okay. He’s not Anca, you know!
Scope: Do you see the film as feminist?
Ade: It’s okay for me when people say that, but it wasn’t my intention. Maybe the film can be read that way because I’m a woman, but it’s not that I said, “Well, I want to start a revolution…” But the thing is, what the father wants from her, and she denies, is also a woman-man thing. The father would never have gone to his son and asked, “Are you happy?” So the father is not on the right side with his values—he’s being conservative. Yeah, on the one side there is this issue about being human or not, which can apply to a man or a woman, but on the other side that’s why she gets so angry, because he’s asking her that thing. This is why it’s important for me that in the end she continues her job. It was never the idea that she gets through this event even higher than where she wanted to be before. Sometimes I was a bit afraid that I was trying to say that she should be more open, but in the end I think she chose the right job. It’s just that she should maybe try to integrate some other things in her life.
Scope: Some critics had doubts about the film’s coda, which I’m curious to hear you address. Did you ever consider ending the film with the two of them hugging in the park, which would have made the film, well, uplifting?
Ade: Yeah, we should just have put the titles there? That would ruin the whole film. All you critics would have been in shock! I hated that, but the question was asked, and we discussed it, but it was so simple and stupid, them hugging each other, you need to let it continue. Even him falling to the ground…it still would have been, “Oh, that’s the message: hug each other sometimes and things will be better.” It would have been very, very wrong. I think the two had to meet in real life. I know by that point people are thinking, “Maybe it could be a bit shorter,” but I felt that I had to stay with that rhythm for the final scenes.
Scope: I felt their encounter at the funeral is pretty essential, as it really brings home the fact—and I suppose you could read the scene in a number of ways—that it’s an ambiguous ending. And also you have moments in dealing with relationships, whether its with friends or specifically relatives, where you think you have a breakthrough, but the next time you revert to familiar, ingrained behaviour. The film needs drama to exist, but what I take away from the film, and this also relates to what we were discussing about the locations and the mise en scène, is that in the end things will essentially go back to being the same. I mean, maybe it’ll be a bit different, but not drastically different.
Ade: Yes, that’s what I wanted to have. That’s also what touches me, that they put so much effort, both of them, in order to change a very, very little thing…I think that’s funny in a way. But I wanted the ending to be open, and I don’t want to think about it any further. My thoughts end when the film ends, and the rest is up for the viewer to decide. I think everything could be possible, but it’s nice that they will share this little secret that happened in Bucharest.