Toni Erdmann doesn’t quite exist. Maren Ade’s third feature isn’t named after either of its main characters but rather a mid-film persona adopted by Winfried (Peter Simonischek), a shambling, melancholic music teacher and inveterate jester who elbows his way into the life of daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller). By transforming himself into a stranger with joke teeth and a ridiculous wig, Winfried is able to falteringly reconnect with Ines despite bringing chaos to her personal and professional life.
“It’s only funny for us”, Maren observes, “For them it’s a nightmare. That’s why we like it.” The writer-director touches upon a range of themes in the film, from the shifting boundaries of parent-child relationships to the ethics of foreign-based management consultancy, and yet also includes a scene in which Winfried dresses up in a full-body Bulgarian ritual goat-pelt and and gatecrashes his daughter’s birthday brunch. Despite combatting jet lag, in person Maren proved as thoughtful and clear-eyed as her film.
It’d be possible to make a concise version of this story that just depicts the relationship between Ines and Winfried, but the film also deals with several broader topics. What attracted you to that approach?
There was this relationship with Ines’ father but I was equally interested in her, in her job, in the business world. I come from realism and believe it’s important that each character has their own problems that maybe have nothing to do with each other. If it’s character-driven instead of plot-driven then people take actions you don’t expect, and that’s when interesting things happen. It’s right for the situation for Ines to struggle with certain emotions, even if they make the film fuzzy or don’t fit so well into the plot. I like to make little excursions with characters and follow what interests me most, so over the whole story you get a more complicated picture of a person.
You illustrate their relationship using lots of small-but-telling details, like Winfried giving Ines a cheese grater for her birthday. Why that gift?
A cheese grater is a desperate present to give to a daughter who’s an international businesswoman, but on the other hand it’s very practical. I thought it was something that showed how Winfried really knows himself. He’s aware that it’s not a good present but does it anyway. At least he bought a designer cheese grater, but you understand why it’s annoying. I wanted him to give her something from the kitchen. It’s an accident, something she doesn’t need at all.
What effect does “becoming” Toni Erdmann have on Winfried? Does it liberate him?
What’s good for him is that although he’s hiding behind the wig and the teeth, it’s possible to be more honest with her. He’s open with his critiques. As Winfried he suppresses all his suspicions about what she’s doing in her life and job and whether they’re the right things. It’s a radical approach but they come to see each other at eye level. He starts speaking an aggressive language she understands. It was important though that you could always see through to Winfried so you don’t forget about him. It’s him that’s doing Toni and it’s out of desperation, so it’s an interesting conflict.
Ines works in a male-dominated environment which the film explores indirectly: for example, she’s asked to take a client’s wife shopping, something you can’t imagine happening if she was a man. How does she fit into that world?
It’s too simple to say there’s sexism going on among her male colleagues. For me it’s more interesting to ask why is Ines participating. She’s not forced to go shopping. She could have found a way out if she really didn’t want to. It’s something that perhaps she’s too used to, and during the film that she starts realising that. Ten times it’s funny, eleven times it’s annoying. I didn’t feel it was such a big topic. It’s only present because I took a woman and put her in that situation. It was there from the beginning so I had to decide how I showed it.
Is there a moral element to how you portrayed Ines’ job, which facilitates the downsizing of other companies?
I talked to a lot of consultants before writing because I had to understand what they’re doing. The argument they’d make was that restructuring is sometimes necessary to save a company. If you change things maybe you can make the company more profitable and save other jobs, and that’s always the dead end in the discussion. How I see Ines is that she’s not a cold person, but she protects herself. It doesn’t make sense for her to think too much about people working on the oil field. Employees become a number. Her father, who judges her for this, is in the luxury position. The enemy for his post-war German generation was really clear: it was the generation before. For Ines life became too complex, too complicated. It’s difficult for her to have a clear position. She sees Winfried’s system of values as too romantic for her, a sinking island. What takes some time in the film is that I tried to get both perspectives, to always have both angles on a situation.
It’s been seven years since previous last film, Everyone Else. Was the gap helpful?
For two years I did different things, but for the other five it was only this. It’s a long film! It’s almost three hours, so it was always like making two films. Every step took more work. I was constantly working on it, but also I participated in every bit of the project so I never left the film alone. I don’t mind that it took a while, though. It’s a luxury to never be really under pressure to leave the world of film-making before you’re happy. After three films you realise that you have something like handwriting, a way you work. Although I might want to change I don’t think I will, and that’s okay.