Writer-director Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann, an offbeat German comedy that was just nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, is difficult to pigeonhole. The film centers on a father, Winfried (Peter Simonischek), who assumes an alternate, prankster identity—the title one, for which he “disguises” himself with a set of fake teeth and a bad wig—while visiting his grown, international corporate consultant daughter, Ines (Sandra Hüller). She is having a slow-simmering crisis of her own, culminating in a naked birthday party, which her father, dressed as a tall, hairy beast, crashes. Practical jokers in films as in life are often barely disguised bullies, but throughout Toni Erdmann we see the father’s yearning for connection in every sideways glance he casts toward his exasperated daughter.
After a screening of the film at the New York Film Festival this past fall, Ade, Simonischek and Hüller discussed the film with the fest’s director, Kent Jones, as well as with the press. The following is edited for clarity and concision.
On the film’s central relationship
Maren Ade: It was father and daughter from the beginning, with him transforming into another character to meet her anew, to start from zero.
On Toni’s teeth
Ade: When I was a volunteer in Munich, there was the German premiere of the first Austin Powers. I worked there, and they gave us the fake teeth. I thought my father could use them, and he did like putting them in when he wanted to say something really serious.
On how many hours of rushes were shot for the film
Peter Simonischek: And we could make 10 other films of this 100 hours.
Ade: I could make another, different film. I could make another conflict.
Sandra Hüller: Maybe it’s dangerous to say, but when you’re tired and you’ve played everything possible, things happen. You [Ade] always talked about little gifts that you get from us that we couldn’t know at the beginning. So that’s why we were doing it over and over again.
On becoming a believable father and daughter
Hüller: We tried different things all the time. We had a long rehearsal process. When we started shooting we could get on each others’ nerves and fight.
On the title
Ade: I did a lot of research on comedians and I liked Andy Kaufman, and he had one character, Tony Clifton, this bad guy, bar singer in Las Vegas, very over the top, and “Toni” is international. And then you have that German “Erdmann,” which is like a downer.
Hüller: We never had the feeling that we were doing a comedy. Maren always told us, “It’s a film about humor.” It’s not a funny film. We were playing a tragedy mostly, but the people are so desperate that they become funny.
Simonischek: Chekhov, all his plays are “comedies,” even Cherry Orchard he calls a “comedy.”
Ade: My two films [Everyone Else, The Forest for the Trees] before this one were very realistic and with Toni I found a way out. I was interested in doing a comedy, but I knew I could never make a comedy just to please an audience. And with the actors, I tried to avoid that we think too much of being funny. I thought if it’s not funny, then it’s a drama. Who cares?
Ade: I thought I should at least learn something when I take so long to make a film. I met a lot of women doing different things in business. At the beginning I was trying to ask very critical questions, but, like with every enemy, when you come closer you start to understand. I met women building up companies, but with consultancy—the world economy doesn’t work without consultants and consulting companies anymore because they can’t do everything in-house, they need to hire people. But it’s also an outsourcing of responsibility. And this strong performance aspect: I was interested in Ines being a character who loses herself in all the roles she plays and having this facade fall apart—while the father starts to find himself through performance.
On the hairy costume
Ade: It’s from Bulgaria. With the furry monster I wanted to find something like the inside of the father. I wanted him to be this father that he once was and that she becomes small in his arms again.
Hüller: The more camouflage the father is using, the closer they get to each other. She would never have hugged him, when he was just himself. And it [the costume] stinks, oh my God.
Ade: It’s made out of real goat.
On the dress that was difficult to escape
Hüller: It took time to find it because you had to get into it somehow but not get out of it, but I thank Maren for the idea with the fork [zipping a back zipper with one] because I didn’t know.
Ade: I remember you [Hüller] thought we sewed you into the dress, that we changed something.
Hüller: I really couldn’t get it off.
On the hairy head that was difficult to escape
Ade: You carry this costume on the chin. That’s also why it has emotion, because you have every movement from the neck. If a costume is on the shoulders it’s stiff. This costume is so close to your face that you almost can’t get the head off. I put that into the script. I liked the idea that they find each other through this hug, but she still doesn’t realize what’s going on with him. He maybe could die in that thing! Children don’t think about how much effort it is to be a parent or do something for the kids—or how much it costs.
Ren Jender is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Village Voice, LA Weekly and The Toast.