Maren Ade’s sensational Toni Erdmann takes its name from a bogus “life coach” performed by Winfried (Peter Simonischek), a Willy Brandt-era progressive who, in the face of mandatory retirement, assumes the hobby of dropping in on his daughter, Ines (Sandra Hüller), in Romania. She works as a restructuring apparatchik for a sprawling multinational corporation, and by the time Toni, wearing fake teeth and a black wig, has made his first appearance in her professional circle, the interplay between father and daughter has been already (and irrevocably) flushed with deadpan tension.
Toni Erdmann rewards the viewer’s time: Well before Ines has been goaded into singing history’s most resentful cover of “The Greatest Love of All” to a roomful of strangers, Simonischek and Hüller have betrayed for us a world of under-expressed emotions. The loping, observational style of Ade’s camera is upended by the film’s swift, intuitive cutting, which, throughout the many delicious exchanges of dialogue, reorients a moment’s suspense yet again on the question of how, why, and when it’s okay to laugh.
I spoke with Ade and Hüller a day after Toni Erdmann’s rapturous premiere at the New York Film Festival, about schadenfreude, what stars should and shouldn’t share with their directors, and the elusive laffs-to-pathos ratio.
Maren, is it true that you shot 700 hours of footage?
Maren Ade: Yesterday at the press conference they said 700. But maybe I made a joke in some email? People have been asking me: “700!?” [It was more like] 100. We just let everything roll. [If we had shot on film] we would have been more careful.
Sandra Hüller: I asked her this every single day. [all laugh]
Ade: What’s not in the film? You know, the thing is, it’s always the same. We were just looking for outtakes, and there are five scenes that didn’t end up in the film. Not major scenes. It’s just that we improvised and repeated things so often. I had 50 shooting days, two hours per day. It all happened really fast.
Sandra, were there scenes you expected to end up in the film but didn’t?
Hüller: I don’t remember. Every shot was equal, in a way. Everybody knew Maren would be the one to decide, in the cutting process, what kind of film it would be [in the end]. We were just gathering material for that.
Ade: But the singing scene maybe?
Hüller: Well, we knew that it was nothing and then it could be something.
Ade: The makeup guy was crying, so we said, “There must be something.”
So you killed it on the first take?
Hüller: No, I did not kill it on the first take. No. But I’ll keep that in mind for the next interview: “I killed it on the first one!” No, it was a misunderstanding basically, and maybe I was just exhausted. It was a hot day in the apartment where we were shooting, it was so packed, and the moment when she’s singing—you could take it as a sad moment as well, because she’s giving up on her father, he’s instrumentalizing her for his story at that point. I felt so sad. So we did five versions where I basically looked sad, and then Maren had to tell me: “Sandra, this is so boring, can we please change it…”
Ade: No! What I wanted, what I really wanted, was for Ines to sing that song as though she doesn’t want to sing it—and that’s really the most stupid thing you can ask for. Sandra said that to me: “Either I sing or I don’t sing.” So there has to be an option where the way of singing is to say “fuck you.”
Hüller: But we found that out late.
Ade: We found it out late, but luckily we had a version taped that you had called “Vegas” in the rehearsals. [Sandra laughs]
Ade: Like Las Vegas. She’s very ironic with her singing—so we watched that when it got boring, and you were also a bit aggressive because it didn’t work. I said, “Take that aggression and use it!” And then she was just “killing it.”
Hüller: That’s right. I was just “killing it.”
Ade: And I told nobody that she would sing differently now. I hoped for it, but I also didn’t know it would work. And she was saying, “Okay! I’ll do this ’Vegas’ version now!” And the sound guy looked at me during the take like this [grimacing], because her mix was so loud and so harsh. [laughs] But afterward I wasn’t sure that this was the right one. I had to go again: “That was very good, Sandra, but can you do it a little bit less?”
Hüller: So actually, I was killing her. Not it.
Ade: It’s not the nicest moment for a director, to ask that.
I love the moment when he’s beginning to play the song and he repeats the opening bars a few times to stall while she’s getting mad. You could feel people shifting in their seats at the press screening. But anyway, how many times have you had to listen to “The Greatest Love of All” by now?
Hüller: Not so many times. We’ve been singing it a lot. I love the song. It’s so nice. And the original version is too.
Maybe my mind has been ruined by American movies, but I kept waiting for the big reveal—you know, he’s going to die of cancer, she’s holding a childhood trauma against him, something like that. Their history is embodied in how they interact, but how do you make two actors who aren’t related comfortable with each other in a familial way?
Ade: For me, being so specific about certain things doesn’t make a film more interesting. I tried to leave the relationship a little open so it’s universal, although he’s a very special guy and she’s a very special person, and there’s something clear about the fact they’re a father and a daughter. I don’t even think there was anything [traumatic] in their past. To me they just lost a little bit of the connection between them. Nothing special, just the fact that she’s not home anymore and that their lives don’t have as much in common.
It’s been said that you sold the film as a comedy, but in the process of making it you realized how sad it really was.
Ade: I was very happy with how strong the comedy came back in the editing—and then in the cinema, for people who don’t know what’s going to happen. But doing the film we focused very much on all the desperation under it, because a lot of absurd things come out of that. Imagine something like the naked party. It’s really a sad, existential moment for Ines, and that’s something I was connected with. I thought, “Okay, maybe it will be funny when the boss is standing there, naked,” but how it would accumulate during the film was something I couldn’t know yet. And I didn’t care too much because it felt good, the work we were doing. I didn’t care if it was “enough of a comedy” or not. I thought, if it’s a drama, it’s a drama.
Sandra, did it read as funnier or sadder on paper?
Hüller: No. It read complicated. I couldn’t have told the story to anyone because it was so complicated, which is always a good thing, I think. In the beginning we were thinking about how we can describe the film to other people: “A father visits his daughter at her workplace.” And then the rest is just too complicated to tell, I felt. That was it. I had no idea what it would feel like to actually do it, and then we started the rehearsal process.
Was Sandra cast first?
Ade: No, it was him first. I decided for the constellation of them both, together.
I believe I read that you spent years working on this script. Describe that process? Do you have a “philosophy of comedy”?
Ade: Hmm. I think it’s true that when you’re in the cinema, it feels good. You’re not judging others, exactly, but it feels better to watch things happen to them.
Well, something happens to you and it’s horrible, but you see it happen to somebody else and it’s suddenly funny.
Ade: Yeah, and I think you have to get over that to come closer to the character. Maybe it’s more like being afraid this would happen to you, or recognizing yourself in it—and also, I always like when a character is fully aware of what they’re doing, fully aware it’s completely stupid, and still, they cannot stop it. This is a moment: “It’s happening and I cannot do anything against it.” It’s like in real life—those moments when I’m completely alone and something happens, and I have to laugh about myself. You know?