Even the simplest description of Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann sounds bonkers, and at that point you haven’t heard the half of it. The three-hour German comedy tells the story of buttoned-up consultant Ines (Sandra Hüller) and her jokester father, Winfried (Peter Simonischek), who begins dressing up in false teeth and a truly ghastly wig to infiltrate his daughter’s life as Toni Erdmann. Toni is a creation unlike most you’ll experience on screen this year: He’s perverse and has the power to make you feel truly uncomfortable—but then again, so does Ines. There’s nudity, a Whitney Houston sing-along, and a furry Bulgarian kuker. At the New York Film Festival earlier this year, The A.V. Club sat down with writer-director Ade to figure out just how she dreamed up this bizarre, entrancing, warm-hearted family story.
The A.V. Club: Toni’s look is so important to the film. How did that come to you? When did that come to you?
Maren Ade: The way he looks? During the casting, it was clear that I had to find Winfried and Toni. Every actor would have been a different Toni. I had to have a good Toni. So, I put a lot of wigs and fake teeth and jackets [on them]. It was really the worst wig that you can imagine. You see it in the film, but in reality, it is like, “No, you cannot do it. It’s stupid. Nobody would believe that guy.” I tried to copy the wig with better hair.
MA: More realistic. Then, on the shooting day, I switched again to the terrible one.
AVC: When you were writing, did you always think Toni would have to be so horrible that it works? Was that always a part of it? Or did you think maybe Toni’s look wouldn’t be so outlandish?
MA: For me, he survives on the last 5 percent that he might be important. This is something you have to direct and talk about carefully [with the actors that reacted to him]. Because they said, “Yeah, but do I believe this?” I said, “Yeah, you don’t believe it, but you don’t show it.” That’s the thing. That’s how it goes on and on. This is [how] I think people would react because he’s introduced like a coach.
AVC: Why a father-daughter relationship?
MA: It was just there, and for me, it’s very natural to choose father and daughter. There are a lot of father-and-son films. I didn’t find so many father-daughter stories. Actually, I was more interested in that whole family thing, that a family is something very static and hard to escape, so everybody has a certain role over the years, no matter if you like it or not. My father also likes to joke, also has a good repertoire. It’s not a film about him, but his humor is important for me. Father-daughter has a lot of layers, I find.
AVC: What do you mean by “a lot of layers”?
MA: It’s man-woman, so there’s also this thing that maybe in the past he was the hero, and then he fell down from that thing and now he’s just an annoying guy. So there’s a lot of things going on.
AVC: You mentioned static family relationships. Is that the sense that, like, “It’s the annoying father. It’s the uptight daughter”—the sitcom tropes people get put into? Is that what you meant?
MA: For me, the constellation I think I had in mind [was], the more serious she is, the more funny it is. Also, I tried to be very precise. She just doesn’t want to give in because he’s coming and he wants something from her. It’s too simple with the questions he’s asking, so she’s just reluctant and refusing him.
AVC: When you say the questions, are you referencing when he asks, “Are you happy?”
MA: Yeah, “What’s that?” She gives it back. In a way, she also provokes Toni. On one side, it’s very cruel, because she also almost dismisses him as a father when she says, “I would jump out of the window, and even if I would jump out of the window, you’re not the one who could save me from that.” On the other side, he feels like she’s also longing for another form of contact or communication, so it’s much more radical, what he’s offering now. He speaks more [in] her language.
AVC: When he’s Toni?
MA: When he’s Toni, yeah. I was interested in this hierarchy. This is something that always interests me between two characters: how hierarchy changes. Like, as a father, he’s almost depending on her emotionally much more than the other way around, and this is something she also finds out, that still she could use him. She still needs him.
AVC: He asks, “Are you really a human?” That’s followed by her boss calling her an animal.
MA: An animal!
AVC: Do you think Ines is lacking some element of humanity that she needs to learn to have? Or is that just the way she is perceived by these guys?
MA: We tried to translate it very [closely], but I think the thing he’s saying is, “Are you really a human?” For me, that’s insight. He’s asking, “Are you really human? Because leaving me here in this hole, are you crazy?” I think she’s not lacking something. I think she’s more on the rational side of life, and it’s very necessary. We need people like her. That’s the problem. On the surface, she decided against the values that he gave her because she’s smart. It became too simple to her. His view on the world, maybe, for her, is almost close to being naïve. But still, there’s also, inside her, a longing for that time. For him, it was easier. He had a clear enemy in Germany. He’s very typical [of the] German post-war generation who wanted to make sure that the children are raised differently, that something like Nationalsozialismus never happens again. He raised her with a very open view, the idea of a world without borders, and now he’s confronted with the results in every way.
AVC: Why is she a consultant? It’s a very realistic profession that doesn’t really get dramatized a lot because it’s sort of unglamorous.
MA: Yeah, it was really hard to find a good project [that shows] what they’re doing, because it’s very hard to visualize, in a way. But still, I found it interesting. I did a [lot of] research because I [understood basically] nothing of this business. I thought, when I do a film for such a long time, I should at least learn something. So I said, “Okay, let’s meet those people.” Also, in the beginning [I was a little bit], like, “Meet the enemy.” I was prepared, doing interviews, and so asking critical questions. Actually, I found out that it’s really interesting what they’re doing, and much more complicated. And with every enemy, when you get closer you understand much more, or the picture dissolves.
What I found really interesting is there’s such a strong aspect of performing in that job or pretending like you have to be someone, you’re selling something. Also, politically, the world economy really depends on consultants. Because it’s also, in a way, an outsourcing of responsibility. They can say, “Yeah, they told us to do that,” and the consultant says, “Yeah, but I’m just a consultant,” and nobody’s responsible anymore. This is something that I found interesting, in contrast to [Winfried], that [Ines] has a strong performance, or a strong façade in the beginning, and this goes away after a while during the film. Or she’s giving up all these roles that she plays and that he, on the other side, comes closer to himself through playing a role.
AVC: Why did you want her to be working in Bucharest?
MA: It was something that made a lot of sense, out of the fact that there are a lot of multinational companies, and a lot of German companies [started trying] to participate after the end of Communism to get a piece of that cake. Also, these hierarchies between the countries or that are inside the EU I think [are] problematic, that you have these so-called “big” EU partners and “small” EU partners. I find it interesting how that goes on inside the companies, these Germans going abroad telling people what to do. The film doesn’t give a clear answer to that, but it was a setting that in itself raises a question.
AVC: Then at the end, you have Winfried come to Ines as the kuker. How did you land on that creature?
MA: Actually, it was not so complicated. I just Googled “costumes from Eastern Europe,” and I really fell in love with this thing because it’s so realistic. It’s almost like a very good animated thing. You know why? It’s because it’s carried—they carry it on the—what’s that called here?
AVC: The chin?
MA: The chin. The head is here, so you have the full movement of the neck, and that’s where the liveliness comes from.
AVC: Did you want to highlight the interplay between this very traditional figure and modern issues?
MA: This happens, and I like the idea. But I was searching for something that is, like, for me, the inside of Winfried. The last costume he chooses, I had the feeling it should be the closest to him, how he really is, and this was suited very well [in] that he’s warm and sad on one side, but also [a] funny, furry thing. Also, [when they hug], he’s very fatherly and big.
AVC: The big nude scene is very nonsexual, but you do have this sort of fascinating, strange sex scene, when Ines asks her love to ejaculate on a petit four. How did you want sex to figure in as a story?
MA: Actually, I found it funny that the father provokes something, but it ends up there. That’s, for me, her first Toni moment, because she tries to change something. It was also more conflict about humor, in a way, because she says, “I don’t want to lose my body,” and he says, “Don’t be so humorless.” Then she just decides to wait and see what happens—to step a little bit aside. You could also read it that she likes to dominate him, but I think it was not so much about that because, for this, she’s not doing much. She’s just making and saying a funny thing with a petit four, and the rest he’s doing himself.
And with the naked party, it was in the script. It was an idea from a long time ago that maybe someone just decides to do his birthday like that, maybe to get rid of everything. In the script, it didn’t work so well. We were always discussing it, but nakedness, when you really see it and [the characters are] completely naked, it’s like, “Wow, this really raises the tension immediately.” I think it was very courageous of them to do it like that, because I think the worst thing that can happen to you is just standing naked in a light room doing nothing, just playing normal life, bringing glasses and so on.
AVC: It’s a long movie, and it takes a while to introduce Toni, which is something I found interesting. What was your thinking behind when in the film you wanted to introduce Toni?
MA: I think it needed, really, you [to] get into this adventure, that a real person is playing something. You really need to know him before, because if not, it wouldn’t have been the same, and you really need to know what was going on between them. I had this idea that things get worse and worse and worse, to really create a dead end. [It’s also almost] like a dead end for [the] film, so you say, “How should it go on now? It’s over now.” This took some time. I really needed that time. Always when we [tried to shorten] the film somewhat, the surprise didn’t work as well anymore.