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Sandra Hüller as Innes in Maren Ade’s ‘Toni Erdmann’

This film deals with complex, comedic dad & daughter issues

'Toni Erdmann' is a profoundly moving film – here the director Maren Ade talks feminism in film characters, The Cure and Andy Kaufman

Families are usually complicated, especially when a wig and false teeth are involved. Maren Ade’s third feature film, Toni Erdmann, is a spectacular 162-minute comedy – or, if you prefer, a nuanced drama about comedy – concerning a combative father and daughter for whom humour is the ultimate weapon. Effortlessly funny and moving, it can be watched multiple times with new layers to unpeel in each viewing.

Ines (Sandra Hüller), a German business consultant in Romania, receives a surprise visit from her father, Winfried (Peter Simonischek). Lonely and grieving a dead dog, Winfried hopes to reconnect with his career-obsessed daughter, but no such luck – she’s too bogged down by machismo office politics, and they part ways with vague promises to Skype. So it’s a shock to Ines when her father returns a few days later masquerading as Toni Erdmann, a life coach with monstrous spaghetti hair and oversized dentures.

In a gesture of love that borders on stalking, Toni follows Ines around, seeking to inject laughter back into her life. Instead, she grimaces as her father/Toni integrates himself into her corporate and social circles. Suddenly, it’s “Bring Your Embarrassing Dad to Work” week. With drugs, handcuffs and fraught karaoke in the mix, the tensions escalate into an absurd and ambitious climax – the final hour, in particular, transcends into deep, emotional territory. We speak to Maren Ade about making Toni Erdmann, the power of humour, The Cure, and finding inspiration in Andy Kaufman’s antagonistic brand of performance.

Do you think filmmakers feel an arbitrary pressure to cut their movie down if it’s funny? Because comedies, unless you’re Judd Apatow, are supposed to be 90 minutes. Or is this not a comedy?

Maren Ade: I didn’t expect it to be so long. In the editing, it felt right the way it is, and it felt longer when I shortened it. It’s not a pure comedy, but I’m happy about that label. For me, it was a bigger challenge to do comedy because I come from drama. But still, it’s the father who brings comedy to the story because he’s desperate. A lot of what I find funny comes out of desperate characters.

Yeah, Winfried is the clownish figure who brings the comedy. But the humour comes from Innes’ reactions – and actually, it’s a double act with her as the straight woman?

Maren Ade: Yeah, because, as a viewer, we are more her. We’re not the father. We’re not Toni Erdmann. It was necessary you could always see through the façade – it’s loud, with the wig and teeth. It was important to have that connection with Winfried, who’s doing this. But a lot of the comedy goes through her because she’s playing it so straight. There’s a development in her reactions towards him. We really worked on that a lot. I had several possibilities in the editing because I did so many takes for each scene. And actually, I found it works best when she’s as serious as possible. Because the breakout that comes later in the film is much more intense when you feel everything she’s been suppressing.

“In classical things like Bond, I’m not the Bond Girl when I watch them.‘‘ – Maren Ade

Your films don’t have much music in them, but the songs you include really make an impact. There’s Grandaddy at the end of The Forest for the Trees; the ridiculous dancing to “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before” in Everyone Else; and; now Whitney Houston in Toni Erdmann. So I was wondering… 

Maren Ade: (laughs) Why this strange mixture of music? With Everyone Else, I was very strict in my mind that every song could have been from the mother’s room – you know when he’s dancing. On Toni Erdmann, until the final song, it’s only on-location music. Whitney Houston was always in the script. I had a feeling that everyone would picture it as a song that belongs to her past, or that maybe when she was a teenager she forced her father into playing it again and again so she could practise. And I like the emotional, kitschy lyrics, and that she’s doing it so aggressively.

And for the credits, “Plainsong” by The Cure is such a perfect closer.

Maren Ade: I’ve always loved that Cure song. When doing Everyone Else, I was already thinking, “One day, I will make a movie just to put that song at the end.” Because it’s a bit showing off; it’s so… (impersonates the dramatic drum intro). So I was happy I could put it in. For me, it has a lot to do with Innes as a teenager. She wasn’t a consultant at the time; she listened to The Cure.

Could you tell me about coming up with the Toni Erdmann character?

Maren Ade: The father character is a bit inspired by my father, who likes to joke. And it’s inspired a bit by Andy Kaufman, who had the Tony Clifton character – I really wanted this transformation. It was the humour of my father, or of my family – with humour, you have to learn it somewhere. I have two small children and I’ve realised, your type of humour is something you automatically give to your children. And it wasn’t just Tony Clifton; it was everything Kaufman did.

Did you see The Man on the Moon?

Maren Ade: No! I don’t know why. I did so much research on the real Andy Kaufman, and all the things I found on YouTube were so good. He works a lot with big contrasts. He’s a very shy guy who pretends he’s able to imitate Nixon, and he just says, (whispers meekly) “Hello, I’m Nixon…” And that was the imitation. Then he’s suddenly doing this perfect imitation of Elvis.

Oh, I’ve just realised the Toni Erdmann/Tony Clifton name thing.

Maren Ade: Yeah, I wanted to make it clear how much I liked it. He always denied that he was Tony Clifton. Tony Clifton had his own agent. He signed with “Tony Clifton”. At that time, it was very radical what he did, that he really stayed completely in character. His performances weren’t just for entertainment; they didn’t start when the cameras start, they started before.

Andy Kaufman always got a kick out of annoying people, like when he forced an audience to hear him read The Great Gatsby aloud.

Maren Ade: Yes, that’s so good!

But the Toni Erdmann persona is more about comforting people?

Maren Ade: Toni is a bit nicer, you mean? Well, he’s trying to make friends, because he’s acting in an environment that’s not so friendly. Clifton acted in an environment that was usually friendly, so it needed someone to behave badly. But you mentioned earlier about the perspective of Toni’s daughter – it’s not clear; it’s also a lot of aggression. He lets out a lot of resentment that he suppressed as a father towards this business world and the job she’s doing. Actually, he’s not open, and he’s much more critical than what he says; it becomes honest through this strange performance.

I don’t know how much time you’ve spent in offices like that. Did you have to research all the corporate details?

Maren Ade: I had to research it. I had no idea when I started about the business world. I thought: a film takes so long, I should at least learn something while making it. At the beginning, I had to write down like, “OK, here comes the CEO, then comes the second management…” I found it interesting to meet people of my generation because I was suspicious of what they were doing. But it was interesting. I mean, with every enemy, when you come closer and start understanding what they really do, the picture dissolves a bit.

Innes, who you’ve called a gender-neutral character, says a really funny line to her colleague: “If I was a feminist, I wouldn’t be talking to you.”

Maren Ade: Yeah, I always hoped Innes would, as a character, work for everybody – for male audiences too. For me, as a woman, I’m completely used to identifying with men. In classical things like Bond, I’m not the Bond Girl when I watch them. But what happens with Innes is a transformation with that feminist aspect. I found it typical for her generation to maybe say, “Feminist? Pffft. What’s that? Do we need that?” Or, “That was something from the 70s. It’s uncool to say, ‘I’m a feminist’.” So Innes adapts to this male environment and can participate in jokes about Anca. And on the other side, I see her as someone free and self-determined. It’s her own fault to go shopping with the CEO – she could say no. She’s forced through her job, but she also forces herself. She doesn’t have to participate in it. And through Toni, she’s reminded of her own strength, and the strength awakens her as a woman. So it’s more about a character who’s getting aware of all these problems.

There are one-liners about unmanly men in The Forest for the Trees and Everyone Else. And in Toni Erdmann, with the “sex” scene, Innes makes a guy masturbate onto that cake thing. What do you find funny about fragile masculinity?

Maren Ade: With that scene, Innes is stepping aside and not doing anything with him. Usually, they work and agree to just have a normal affair. I’m not so sure that I find it funny. For me, it was always a scene where they were discussing humour. He says, “Hey, don’t be so humourless.” She says, “No, I don’t want to lose my bite.” And he’s a free person. It’s his own thing that he’s doing… this. And at the end, they go back to his laptop and discuss what’s on Facebook. I just felt Toni should have an effect on her life and it’s not always like, “How sad!” In a way, it’s her Toni Erdmann moment – to not participate in the very usual, boring sex they had before. So she makes this stupid proposal to him.

The false teeth are so central to the film, they feel like something that must have come early on in the writing?

Maren Ade: Yeah, they were there from the beginning. Also, this was something my father really did for a while. He had these stupid fake teeth. In a restaurant, when the waiter came, he’d put them on. Or when he was telling us something very serious, he’d put them on. It’s funny, it was long ago, but I worked on the premiere of the first Austin Powers movie in Munich. As a giveaway, they handed out fake teeth and I gave them to my father. They suited him so well. He didn’t look completely different. It was like with Winfried, just a little switch of his expression. He’d just do it for a few seconds, but I liked that idea so much – a real person could try to become someone else.

‘Toni Erdmann’ opens in cinemas on 3 February