“We didn’t try to be funny,” the German actress Sandra Hüller tells me on the phone from Berlin. “We never talked about the film as a comedy.” This insight might be met by disbelief from those of us who have seen Maren Ade’s third feature film, the critically acclaimed Toni Erdmann. The frontrunner for the Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards later this month has many laugh-out-loud moments and is frequently marketed and discussed as that oddest of film creatures, a ‘German comedy.’ But as Hüller explains, “We were always talking about people stuck in some kind of struggle – to get along with their lives, and to get along with each other – so we always took the characters very seriously.”
Toni Erdmann is certainly very funny, in unexpected ways. It is also serious, sad, and insightful about the human condition. But for Hüller the film is also about something else. When she first read Ade’s screenplay, it was the litany of humiliating acts that hit her hardest. “I’d never read anything like this before, where people are humiliating each other so much and are alright with it,” she admits.
Toni Erdmann – which won the FIPRESCI prize at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival, where many thought it should have won the Palme d’Or – is a film rich with ideas about many different things. At its heart, it’s a story about an estrangement between a father and daughter and how the axis of their relationship shifts just enough to bring them closer together. Hüller plays Ines Conradi, Peter Simonischek her father, Winfried, an ex-piano teacher and habitual practical joker.
When we first meet Ines she’s made a brief trip home to Germany. She works in Bucharest, for a consulting firm – one of those companies commissioned to dismantle others – where she effectively fires other people’s staff. It’s a job that almost demands she lose her heart, and she is indeed a cool character – controlled, competent, and complicated. Ines has little social life and even less developed social skills. Not any happier, Winfried shows up uninvited in Romania after his dog, Willy, dies. He wants to reconnect. In the midst of his own depression, Winfried’s worried his only child works too hard and has lost her sense of fun. When Ines sends him packing, he reappears in a ‘disguise’ of sloppy wig and horror teeth as the titular ‘Toni Erdmann,’ life coach extraordinaire.
Hüller notes that initially she wasn’t drawn to Ines. “I didn’t like her because she’s giving everyone a hard time.” But Ines isn’t one of cinema’s stock prickly working women; for the patient, thoughtful audience there’s much more to her than initially meets the eye. It was a similar process of discovery for Hüller. When she got to know her better, she realised that Ines’ coolness is her strength. “She’s not interested in whether people like her or not. She’s just doing her job,” she tells me, “And that makes her, in some ways, a really free person. I like that about her a lot.” As Hüller explains, Ade isn’t interested in conventional narrative rules that demand Ines be more likeable or more amenable or suffers some sort of punishment for her transgressions.
Ade’s women are always complex. In each of her films she focuses on women who disturb social expectations in interesting ways. Following on from The Forest for the Trees (2003) and Everyone Else (2009), Toni Erdmann pits a woman against her work – work that strips her of some basic element of her humanity. There is casual and systemic sexism too. Ines is taken more seriously when she has a man standing beside her, even if it’s her shambolic father, and in addition to managing her own workload she also has to deal with the unstable egos of her male colleagues.
Yet these sharply wrought observations are almost incidental to the broader story. Hüller agrees. “All these things are present, sometimes on a very direct level, sometimes under the surface.” But Toni Erdmann is not, she says, a film primarily about women in the workplace. For Hüller, Ines isn’t supposed to be representative of how ambitious, efficient women are expected to behave or are treated by others. Rather, Hüller sees her as “somebody who tries to be good at what she’s doing; who is making a lot of sacrifices, which might be right or wrong. People might judge her, but it’s her decision.” On a practical level, Hüller says she had the chance to spend time with a German woman working as a consultant. “I had to learn about the corporate world, obviously, because it’s very faraway from my own experience.”
“We know some things about our real families now that we wouldn’t tell anybody. We got really close.”
What Hüller could relate to in the story was being a daughter, and to Ines’ struggle to regain her dignity. Through Ines’ revived bond with her father, Toni Erdmann becomes an exploration of how to re-humanise relationships within an increasingly dehumanising world, a sort of manual for living. As Ines and Winfried, Hüller and Simonischek burrow deep inside the emotional core of their characters. Hüller says a real bond developed between them: “We know some things about our real families now that we wouldn’t tell anybody. We got really close.”
Hüller and Simonischek had plenty of time to develop that confidence. It was a long film shoot with an intensive rehearsal process. Each scene was carefully planned and Ade developed elements of the script as they went along. Nothing was left to chance and yet the filming of multiple long takes allowed the actors to make discoveries about their characters in the moment. Ade sees this as important to creating a sense of realism; allowing actors a chance to be in the moment where something real could happen in front of the camera.
This worked especially well in Toni Erdmann’s two most talked about sequences – Ines’ karaoke style rendition of Whitney Houston’s ‘The Greatest Love of All’ and her ultimate act of social rebellion, the naked brunch she hosts for her birthday. Each of these sequences was shot multiple times – to get the right version of the song for the particular moment in the story, and to get to a place in the brunch scene where the nudity was almost inconsequential; as Hüller says, “to act like nothing was really going on.”
Hüller says Ade’s rehearsal process is akin to theatre. “You start at one point in rehearsal and you don’t know how it ends. You read the words that Medea will kill her children at the end but you don’t know how. You have to actually get to the end to find out what this is all about.” With so many different scenes, and so many hours of footage to choose from, Hüller didn’t know which version of Ines would emerge in Ade’s final cut. But when she watched Toni Erdmann for the first time she says she cried. It was fun and emotional. “It was like Christmas. It was great; like unwrapping a gift from someone. It was really, really nice.”
Toni Erdmann is now streaming at SBS On Demand.
Watch 'Toni Erdmann'
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