Toni Erdmann is a mortifying film. And I mean that in the best possible way.
Toni Erdmann, a 162-minute German film that's the frontrunner for the Palme d'Or at Cannes this year, is chock-full of awkward situations that range from cringe-worthy to laugh-out-loud, “I can’t believe that just happened” hilarious. But ultimately, it's a drama disguised as a comedy—and that's only where the illusions begin.
Emotionally repressed careerwoman Ines (Sandra Huller), living in Bucharest while climbing the ladder at a particularly cutthroat consultancy firm, finds her humorless life upturned when her father visits on a whim. Winfried (Peter Simonischek) and Ines have been estranged for some years now, Ines having replaced her youthful appreciation of her father’s peculiar sense of humor with a self-serious drive for corporate success. (Incidentally, Simonischek—despite wearing buck-tooth dentures for half the film—studied dentistry before he became an actor.) During the visit, Winifried becomes concerned that his daughter is pursuing a joyless and meaningless life, so he intervenes in the only way he knows how: wreaking havoc with practical jokes. He manages to show up everywhere Ines goes, donning different eccentric disguises; his favorite, "Toni Erdmann," is a brazen wig-wearing man who tells bizarre stories at all the wrong moments, sometimes directly jeopardizing Ines's career.
"During shooting, I said to my producer, 'I think it will be a very, very sad film. I’m so sorry; I know we sold it as a comedy.'"
No Film School got a chance to speak with director Maren Ede (Everyone Else, winner of Berlinale's Grand Jury Prize in 2009), who quickly became one of the most sought-after festival attendees. Sony Pictures Classics nabbed Toni Erdmann following its buzzy premiere, which inspired more than one spontaneous round of applause.
Video is no longer available: www.youtube.com/watch?v=imRcz9atLfo
Though Winfried's antics can be deranged and borderline-sociopathic—in one scene, he crashes a tense, high-stakes Embassy meeting between Ines and the very powerful oil company CEO she's working for—his heart is in the right place. Even if misguided, Winifried just wants to be close to his daughter. And above all, he wants his daughter to be happy. This knowledge imbues the absurd situations with poignancy.
"My own father is a bit crazy sometimes," Ade told No Film School. "He definitely inspired me for this film." Her father's sense of humor—Ade refers to it as his "repertoire"—was the centerpiece of her childhood. Though she did once give him fake teeth as a gag present (he used them so often that she had to buy them again for him—twice), Ade insists that he "never did something like Toni, and I’m not Ines."
Winifried's behavior is by all means over-the-top, but according to Ade, the character was born as she began to wonder what gives any parent the unique—and somehow frighteningly potent—power to embarrass their children with even the most innocuous behavior. "Most of the awkwardness comes out of the fact that Ines brings her father into her world," Ade said. "It's strange—why are our parents such a problem? It's embarrassing to have your parents around. It's childish."
"Parents are very private," she ventured. "They tell a lot about you, where you come from. There are a lot of secret aggressions, longing, and fears in the parent-child relationship."
The comedic elements of the script arose from the darker reality of an unmoored father trying to make meaningful contact with his unhappy and emotionally detached daughter. "Humor for me comes out of pain and desperation," Ade said. "The relationship between the two of them, in the beginning, is at a dead end, so [humor is] Winifried's only [option] to define the relationship."
In a particularly interesting scene, Winifried grows exasperated with his daughter's ostensible lack of empathy and desire for interpersonal contact. "Are you even human?" he asks. The question penetrates. Ines claims to have forgotten about it when Winifried serves up a heartfelt apology, but its resonance becomes apparent later as she slowly begins to lighten up. Towards the end of the film, Ines experiences an emotionally cathartic moment when she and "Toni" perform a passionate rendition of Whitney Houston's "The Greatest Love of All." Like many of the film's emotional scenes, it comes at a completely unexpected moment and is one of the highlights of the movie. (At Cannes, it garnered rousing applause mid-screening.)
Ade navigates the film's complicated comedy-drama tone seamlessly onscreen, but striking the right balance was a challenge on set. "At first, I thought I could [run the set] being joke-y, but then I realized I had to spend more time with the serious things underneath," Ade said. "During shooting, I said to my producer, 'I think it will be a very, very sad film. I’m so sorry; I know we sold it as a comedy.'" Because she spent most of the shoot finessing the film's dramatic elements, Ade nearly forgot about Toni Erdmann's comedic DNA. "The comedy came back with a full audience," she said. "Now, everybody’s saying it’s a comedy!"
"You have to put the film very high on your priority list, sometimes over the individual."
At the film's press conference, Sandra Huller admitted her unfamiliarity with comedic performance. "I don’t consider myself a funny actress," Huller said, "but Maren took her wit and made me funny. I come from drama, but it gets boring because it’s always the same story structure. So this was exciting to me."
"The beautiful thing about Maren's films is that people are so embarrassing," Huller continued. "That's what we recognize—what makes [the characters] so close to ourselves."
For her part, Ade revels in the description of her film as "awkward." "I like the word," she said. "There's no real German word for 'awkward.' We only have the word 'embarrassing,' but that's something different."
But Ade rebuffs the notion that her film belongs to a particular brand of national humor. "I think there’s no such thing as German humor," she said. "What’s French humor?"
If there were such a thing as German humor, the film's best scene most certainly upends it. Without giving too much away, Ines throws a party for her coworkers—naked. It's the kind of brilliantly constructed comedy that builds on itself, becoming more and more ridiculous with each character that shows up at the door. Perhaps Ade executed it so flawlessly because she had been sitting on it for years. "The naked party was something I had in mind for a long time," she said. "I didn’t know where I would end up putting it. In the script, it felt a bit strange, but it was so strong when we tried it out because nakedness is something you can’t read [on paper]."
Toni Erdmann is the first film I've seen in a long while that manages to address sexism in the workplace as it exists in real life: with subtlety. Ines is extremely ambitious, and her male co-workers often make comments they likely wouldn't to a fellow man. After defending a strong idea that goes against the grain, Ines's colleague calls her an "animal"; in the same meeting, she has to fight for the chance to be heard. "Do you mind letting me finish my idea?" she says. Once, instead of participating in an important meeting with the oil company CEO, he tasks Ines with taking his wife shopping. Later, Ines tells her boss with a straight face, "I’m not a feminist, or I wouldn’t tolerate guys like you."
"When people make sexist jokes, they say to her, 'Where's your sense of humor?'" Ade said. "But it depends on how often [these jokes] happen. The higher she climbs on the [career ladder], the more she thinks there's a secret bias around her."
It seemed everyone at Cannes was interested in Ade's perspective on feminism and her experience as a female director. "Everybody asks me about gender," she said. "It doesn’t matter if [Ines] is a woman or not. I hope she works for the male viewers as well."
This particular film presented some unique personal challenges for Ade as a female director. "If you had asked me a month ago, I would have told you I'd never do a film again," she said. "I have two small children, and post-production was crazy."
But Ade, who is also the film's producer, said she encounters very little sexism on her own film sets. "I've worked for a long time in a secure, lovely environment with people I've known for [many years], and there's no status problem because I'm a woman," she said.
Admittedly, Ade does feel the need to make conscious efforts to preclude sexism. "With the technicians, I meet everyone and I tell them I'm not interested in technology, so they shouldn't think I'm stupid because [I don't know about it]," she said. "You get rid of that before."
"I really tried everything to shorten the film, but it lost the complexity. If you make it too short, it's too simple."
For Ade, the film she's making is bigger than any potential personal biases. "For us, when we work together, it's so much about the film," she said. "You have to put the film very high on your priority list, sometimes over the individual. That's how a film set works. You're dealing with a hierarchical, capitalistic thing."
Needless to say, the film trains a critical eye on capitalistic practices. Like Ines and her company, many German businesses come to Romania with a general sense of entitlement. Even as Ade was shooting her film there, she experienced an uncomfortable amount of this cultural phenomenon. "Sometimes there's a gap between the topic of the film and how you're filming the actual movie," she said. "For example, this film deals with how Germans behave in Romania, and then you can do the same with your film team. You try to avoid it, but still it's there."
While conducting research in the Romanian business world, Ade was pleasantly surprised to encounter many Romanian businesswomen who didn't appear to be hampered by social inequities. "There are much more women working [in Romania] than in the German business world, and they are tough cookies," she said. "There's a very nice mixture of being female and tough at the same time there."
If the film does have a weakness, it's that it overstays its welcome. There are two or three scenes that could have functioned well as endings; instead, Ade supplies more "Toni" hijinks, perhaps a few more than necessary.
"It's a long film," she conceded. "But I wasn't concerned about it being too long as much as other people were. I really tried everything to shorten the film, but it lost the complexity. If you make it too short, it's too simple. That's the film: it goes again and again." Ade did try to cut the film down, but she felt her efforts messed with the pacing. "It felt even longer 10 minutes less," she said. "That sometimes happens with editing—the length you feel depends on the [pacing]."
It's hard to fault Ade for a rushed post-production process given the fact that she barely finished Toni Erdmann in time for Cannes. "I finished the film on Monday," she said. "Saturday was the premiere. This weekend I was still in the mix, so it was like someone threw me out of the air into this festival."
Ade is happy she made it. "It’s great to be here," she said. "I hope it gives me carte blanche for the next film."