It all started with a promotional set of fake teeth, given out at an Austin Powers première a couple decades back. Maren Ade didn’t know it then, but she had in her hands the seed of inspiration for what would turn out to be her third feature film —the unlikely hit comedy Toni Erdmann.
Initially slotted to première in Cannes’ Un certain regard section last May, the German writer-director’s new movie was upgraded to the official competition, where it reportedly elicited a spontaneous outburst of applause at a festival press screening during a delectably absurd climactic scene (two words: Whitney Houston); and where many surmised it would bring home some serious hardware (it was shut out by the jury, but ended up winning the FIPRESCI prize, given by the international film critics association for what it deems the best film in the competition).
I caught up with Ade during the Toronto International Film Festival in September, a few months before Toni Erdmann was nominated in the Oscar category of best foreign language film, for which it is again seen as a strong contender.
Last week, Toni Erdmann’s charmed journey achieved another level of hype when Variety reported that Jack Nicholson was considering coming out of retirement to star in an American remake alongside Kristen Wig.
Anyone who has seen Ade’s idiosyncratic, nearly-three-hour gem about a prankster father who infiltrates the life of his stuffy business executive daughter would be forgiven for worrying that the delightfully wacky tale might lose some of its charm en route to Hollywood. For now, let’s just consider the prospect an acknowledgment of how the multi-pronged romp strikes all the right notes, balancing absurdity and drama for a shrewd exploration of strained family relations and existential ennui in the face of modernity.
By now you may be wondering whatever happened to those fake teeth. Ade gave them to her dad.
“I thought maybe he can use them,” she said, falling back into her seat after turning off the air conditioning in the downtown Toronto hotel room. (“I will die here!” she exclaimed, in reaction to the cold air blasting through the vents.)
“Since then, he uses them for little things, like when we’re in a restaurant or when he wants to tell us something very serious. I liked this little moment when he transforms into another character.”
The false teeth make their way into Toni Erdmann, with Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek) popping them in at inopportune moments that make his daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller) cringe. When in character, he adopts the film’s titular pseudonym, and audiences are left to delight in the awkward exchanges that ensue.
‘Like a language’
“There are different types of laughing,” Ade said. “Sometimes people laugh when they don’t feel comfortable. When it comes to Winfried, or Toni, some (funny moments) are intended, when he makes a joke. But his whole humour, for me, is like a language. He uses it for different things. Sometimes he wants to hide behind it, or sometimes he wants to change a situation. It can also be aggressive, so there’s a wide range. I hope my film has a range in its humour as well.”
And though her father was part of the inspiration for Toni Erdmann’s skewed patriarch, another part came from a surprising source, late American comedian Andy Kaufman and his alter ego Tony Clifton.
“He was very radical about (the character),” Ade said. “He really denied he was Tony Clifton. He called him, ‘the real me,’ but also said it wasn’t him. Nobody knew who it was. I like that he stayed in character for so long. Tony Clifton had his own agent, and he denied that he was that guy (Kaufman); he said, ‘I don’t even like him, I want nothing to do with him.’ And I like that he was this very bad guy, in contrast to (Kaufman), who was this very shy, nice person.”
Ade surely intended to make people laugh in writing the script but, she explained, she didn’t always remember that while making the film. And therein may lie the secret of Toni Erdmann, which functions on multiple levels of nuance and emotion.
And while the film’s titular character gets all the attention, the writer-director points out that the role of the daughter is equally important, and multifaceted.
“They both have this thing with role-playing,” Ade said. “She’s in her life playing a lot of roles —the daughter is a role, or the girlfriend, or in the business world there’s this performance aspect, which is a very big topic for her. There, too, she’s pretending to be someone, and I like that she sort of loses herself in that role, and that he finds himself while playing a role.”
Ultimately, Toni Erdmann hits home due to its resonant portrayal of relationships, the communication gap between parents and children and its mischievous uprooting of societal conventions, all while maintaining a sharp focus on the shifting emotional states of its central characters. That complexity is a result of Ade’s willingness to probe ever further into a scene.
“I start to dig a hole, then it gets more interesting,” she said of her process, “so I go deeper and deeper and in the end I’m somewhere. I try to be very precise with everything, in the scriptwriting and also in my work with the actors —to never allow just one aspect or one way of seeing a scene.
“I try to make it complex. I work a lot on what lies under a scene. If there’s a scene with dialogue, the work with the actors is especially about what they don’t say, or what they don’t want to show.”
And when in doubt, the fake teeth are on standby.
AT A GLANCE
Toni Erdmann opens Friday. The Goethe Institutehosts special 35mm screenings of Maren Ade’s first two films at Cinéma du Parc: The Forest for the Trees (2003), Feb. 25 and 26 at 2:30 p.m.; and Everyone Else (2009), March 5 at 2:30 p.m.