One of the most acclaimed films of the year, Toni Erdmann, is the third feature by writer-director Maren Ade (after The Forest for the Trees and Everyone Else). It presents a comic situation that aims to transcend the mundanity of its characters’ everyday lives. The film reminds us that when we look at people’s lives from the outside, they may seem prosperous and happy and professionally successful, but that’s only the view from the outside. They might actually feel frustrated, lonely, alienated from the world, lifeless. Ade pays very careful attention to this situation as she sharply criticizes the life of a businesswoman (Sandra Hüller) and examines her frustrations. This character is doing well in life and seems to have a successful career, but something is missing; she lives and breathes, but nothing seems to bring her joy. When her funny, lonely, oddly Dionysian father (Peter Simonischek) intrudes on her work routine in Bucharest, she finally manages to look at her life from a different perspective.
Amir Ganjavie: I want to know about your source of inspiration for Toni Erdmann. Where did the idea come from?
Maren Ade: I think I was partially inspired by my own family. Making a film about a family comes very naturally because you have one, and it has something to do with your own experiences. It’s little scenes that are reminiscent of my own family, like my father, for example, also has a good sense of humor. That left me with a good repertoire that has accompanied me. Let’s say that a lot of things are solved in my family with humor, so that was one inspiration. It mostly starts with the constellation of two characters, and the story comes out of them after a while. It’s more that I first have a much clearer picture of the characters than of the plot. The plot develops through the work. There was also a lot of research involved, like with the business world. That was something where I had to meet people and conduct interviews; I interviewed a lot of businesswomen. It started with an interest in several topics, and then I tried to mix it into one film.
Ganjavie: So you interviewed businesswomen. Do you see this movie as being more related to women? I ask because when I watched the movie it appeared to me that this question relates not just to the women. It’s a more general question.
Ade: No, I mean it’s like for me it comes naturally that she’s a woman because father-son is something I don’t know. It would’ve been a completely different film, so it’s not intended to be something that should mean more just because she’s a woman. I also think that I see Ines as gender-neutral as men could also identify with her. I mean, as a woman I also watch films and I have to identify with the male characters because the female characters are often not very substantial. You know, when I watch a James Bond movie I’m identifying more with Bond than the Bond Girl, though that’s not the same with Ines for the male viewer.
Ganjavie: Can we say that you have some concern about contemporary society, and you feel that, for example, contemporary society and its structure somehow prohibit humans from expressing their inner feelings?
Ade: Yes, I think so. They all behave, or try to behave. That’s also something that provokes the father. For me, it was more the question of Ines playing a lot of roles, so it’s just a slight difference, but even the daughter in the beginning is playing the girlfriend role. The boss, when she’s working with her assistant, is playing a role, so she’s almost never really herself, and the father who has known her for so long is very sensitive to that, and it provokes him in a way to break that façade. It’s complicated to be yourself with all of these demands. This was a topic that interested me.
Ganjavie: I had a conversation with another filmmaker who talked about the fact that we see many people who are very successful, and we think that they are happy, but in reality, they are not happy.
Ade: Right, success doesn’t automatically make you happy.
Ganjavie: And apparently you may see, for example, someone from the outside who you think is very successful and is a good businesswoman, but in reality she’s not at all happy.
Ade: She’s not happy, but maybe for her I think in a way this question of whether she’s happy provokes her. Her father is also asking her whether she’s happy. She’s very reluctant to answer that because in a way, it’s so complicated, and maybe for her it’s also that she’s thinking happiness is not the only thing. Maybe she thinks that it’s a bit overrated. In the end she asks if he tries to give that answer. I mean, he’s not even happy himself, so it’s a complicated thing with that happiness. I would not say that she’s purely happy or unhappy. I think that she’s unhappy in a way, but she likes her job. She continues doing what she’s doing. I didn’t want to say that someone like her should change her life. It’s just about a little shift to maybe try being more herself.
Ganjavie: You focused here on a very specific situation. With this, is there a possibility for the audience to generalize the situation because the audience would say, ‘OK, this happened to this specific character at this specific time and moment. This is not related to me. I don’t live in Bucharest. I’m not in her situation,’ or something like that?
Ade: Yes, there’s this thing like the job she’s doing is something special, but the story, the father-daughter aspect, is something that I hope is kind of universal, even though it’s a very special father-daughter relationship because he’s like this crazy guy. However, I also thought a lot about general things like how a family can sometimes be something very static. It’s difficult to escape the roles that you have within your family, or to escape the fact that parents are sometimes embarrassing when you take them somewhere. There’s also something very personal for me, and it’s interesting to make a film where you also open up a more specific world, but underneath I’m always searching for general or more universal questions.Toni Erdmann
Ganjavie: There are lots of long takes in the movie, so I’m just curious about your conceptualization in relation to long takes and cinema. How do you define cinema and its relationship with long takes?
Ade: For me with my films I’ve come very much from realism, so that’s like the law in a way, although I try to escape that with the story, like when Tony opens a door a bit. There are still some crazy and larger-than-life things that happen in the film, but I always try to be psychologically very precise so that you really know how the characters come from one point to the other, and that provokes long takes in a way. I also very much believe that a film needs some space not only for the actor to develop but to also really be in the moment so that something really happens in front of the camera.
Ganjavie: So, you wanted to show how something extraordinary or unusual can happen through the ordinary.
Ade: Yeah, that’s the thing, but it’s often the risk that the film could become banal. It’s just the banality of life, so there’s always a thin line, and it helps me to decide what to use. For example, today my son will go to the aquarium, and I think that I should tell him to come and I will take a picture of him from above. It’s also like that with the long takes, such as, for example, the nude scenes. Sometimes you just get better acting when you just do little takes. The reality of a film is never more than the reality of the film set, so the longer you let it roll then the more real that it becomes. So yeah, for the nude scenes, for example, I think that was where we did the longest takes, like almost ten minutes. It’s really interesting how they are both theater actors, so they really like took over responsibility for those long takes. Sometimes when the take is running so long I give commands or say things like faster or slower or things like that, but usually it’s not necessary. It was really good also for them to fully experience the scene.
Ganjavie: Exactly—I remember Godard once talked about Breathless and a scene in which two characters talk with each other for twenty minutes and they don’t say anything unusual. It’s a very routine and repetitive conversation. He argued that this is life as in real life, that couples also say the same things many times, and that real life is not always funny. Life can be very boring. So, because your movie is somehow comedic, is it difficult to have comic moments when you’re doing long takes?
Ade: Yes, I think it was like that, and I think that the length sometimes prepares the audience for the comedy or the surprises that come, such as when they are painting eggs before she sings the Whitney Houston song. I tried to shorten that, but then it didn’t work so well. It was important to me in order like to say something about humor that is like the moment before and the moment after the joke. That’s when the face falls apart again and people wonder what’s coming next. These are moments that I like, and so the rhythm of the film was important, especially with the length. I tried to shorten it, but in the end it didn’t have the same intensity. It needed some time to be funny so that you’re surprised again. It also raises a bit the tension and anticipation that something will happen again.
Ganjavie: It appears to me that she has some sadomasochistic tendencies, such as with her boyfriend in what could be considered a sex scene. Was that scene intended to humiliate the boyfriend?
Ade: No, for me it was very clear that this is the way that they like having sex, or they don’t really have sex, but it’s usually like that. It was a clear thing. They have an affair. She’s coming and they’re having sex and then it’s something normal, so at that point, for me, it comes out of the moment that she’s just refusing in a way. It’s also a strange moment where she tries out for the first time a bit of humor, because he’s told her to not be so humorless, but she says that she doesn’t want to lose her bite. It’s just because of what he said before—maybe it’s not strong enough or not clear enough, but for me she’s not like that in general with that type of sadomasochism or something. It’s just that she decides not to participate, and then that’s what happens. It’s more that she’s testing him or provoking him from the humor side, and he’s doing the rest himself.
Ganjavie: The woman is in tune with modernity and capitalism, but little by little she changes and becomes more rebellious, like her father.
Ade: That’s how I tried to make it. We wanted her to be really like she doesn’t want to give in to him or to his joking because he always wants something from her and she’s not willing to show herself to him. That was part of the story that had to come and lead to a moment when it just happens.
Ganjavie: The father tries to help the daughter, so is the movie also about the question of generations and intergenerational conflict?
Ade: Yeah, I mean, I was interested in that because for me the father is very typical of the postwar generation in Germany, which had a clear enemy in the generation before. You know, it was clear that something like the Holocaust should never happen again and so, out of that spirit, this generation raised their children with warmth, but to also be self-determined, curious, and to have the idea of a world without borders. It was very strong in that generation, as it also was with the ’70s generation—but now, he has a daughter whom he’s lost to the globalized world. Now she’s doing that job which he actually does not support politically. For her part, on the contrary, she thinks that her father’s way of seeing the world is a bit too naïve.
Ganjavie: So, was that part of the reason you set the story in Romania? Did you want to be somehow critical of the way that people feel about Germany because they don’t even consider their own country to be a proper place to live?
Ade: No, I think it was interesting because Romania is also part of the European Union, but there is still this hierarchy between the countries, and I was just a bit interested in how some Germans sometimes go abroad to tell people what to do—though that was just one aspect of her job.
Ganjavie: When you talked about your source of inspiration, you argued that the ideas for this film came from the characters, and then you moved into plot development. Does this mean that many scenes in the movie were improvised? I’m thinking about piano scenes or nude scenes. Were there any improvisations, or were the scenes all planned before? Can you tell more about your method of work?
Ade: I worked really long and hard on the script in order to make it feel natural, but I allowed some improvisation too. I like when the actors really invent dialogue. Sometimes there are little things so I try to have the spirit of improvisation on the set, so the actors have a certain freedom. We have a handheld camera and the lighting is like 180 degrees so they can move freely, but with the dialogue and with the staging of the scene I actually try to be really precise. It’s like ninety-five percent is the written script, though I think you asked for scenes like the singing.
Ganjavie: The piano singing.
Ade: Well, the singing is different because you can’t direct a whole song very precisely, so then you’re more like a football coach. You say one or two things, and then with that she goes into the take and plays it. I always try to get to what’s lying under the surface of a scene, so like the subtext or what’s happening between the characters. Here I feel that it’s almost like improvisation, and the actors still have a lot to do because you can’t play those scenes in so many different ways. We try to find the best or most dramatic or intense way, so that’s why I’m happy that I have at least the dialogue mostly fixed.
Ganjavie: Last question. We currently see filmmakers who are becoming very interested in showing strange things, like something that is impossible or is outside of the reality of life. For example, we have a naked party, which is very uncommon here. All of the things that the father does are very unusual. So I’m just curious to know about how you try to approach this. How do you balance your work and not make it very unrealistic?
Ade: I’m always very afraid of it becoming too inventive, like you feel too much and also want to be crazy. That’s also a thing that leads again to the timing where I really try to be precise that it really comes out of the character that he’s playing the comedy for her—so it’s not me who’s doing something to please the audience.