The German filmmaker Maren Ade says technically “Toni Erdmann” isn’t a comedy. The filmmaker’s third feature is, she says, a drama: about a stressed-out, lonely, but very successful business consultant named Ines (Sandra Huller) whose eccentric father (Peter Simonischek), morose over his own loneliness and the recent death of his beloved dog, tries to snap his daughter out of what he thinks is a deep funk. He just does it by donning a ridiculous wig and bad, fake teeth and pretending, badly, to be a wacky character named “Toni Erdmann.” He then proceeds to make her life hell, even though he thinks she’ll wind up happier in the end.
Whatever genre it is, “Toni Erdmann” has become legendary since its Cannes Film Festival debut in May as a comedic tour de force, touting at least three of the year’s most audience-slaying set pieces. Ade, whose last film was the funny-honest relationship saga “Everyone Else,” talked to us while her latest was slaying at the New York Film Festival.
Considering how much of the film is set in meetings and offices, it seems like one of your biggest jobs making this as learning all about the business world. Usually art and business types are kept separate, almost at odds with each other. What made you want to have Ines work in business?
I felt if it takes so long to make a film, I should at least learn something. [Laughs] I thought I should meet those people from my generation who went into business. I did a lot of interviews, especially with women. In the beginning, I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m going to meet my political enemies now! [Laughs] I will ask critical questions!’ But when you get really involved with something, it winds up becoming really interesting to you.
What kinds of things did you find out that really surprised you?
I learned the world doesn’t work without consulting companies anymore. Projects can’t all be done in-house, so they have to hire outside firms. But then it becomes so complicated that no one can be blamed anymore when something bad happens.
What about writing business-speak? The scenes of Ines at work walk a fine line between sort of dull yet not boring. You can follow what they’re saying.
I found out it’s a film cliche for business speech to be too complicated. In films they make it too complicated. I found the way people talk in the business world is much more simple.
Another perk of doing a film about business consultants is they’re often on the move or talking to each other. It’s not just people sitting in front of computers, so it’s not visually boring.
But also there’s this strong performance aspect that they have. It’s like they’re always doing a performance. That’s perfect for Ines: She’s built up this work façade, but she also plays lots of other roles. In the beginning we had this idea of her almost never being herself, because “the daughter” is a role, “the girlfriend” is a role, “the boss” is is a role. I found it interesting to watch these parts of her dissolve or fall apart over the course of the film. And then the father winds up doing his own performance, in order to help her and himself.
You’ve said elsewhere that Andy Kaufman was a big influence on the comedic side of this. What other things did you study?
I watched a lot of screwball comedies, like “Bringing Up Baby,” which is a very good film, I found out again. The rhythm is really incredible; it just goes on and on and on. “La Dolce Vita” I also found interesting in a similar way; the parties keep going, like a boll is rolling and it’s not stopping. But I didn’t want to make this a pure comedy. So I had a father who’s bringing the comedy into the movie, out of desperation. He’s playing comedy for his daughter. It’s not like I’m doing comedy to please an audience. The foundation was this was always a drama, and the comedy is the result of the drama. When I was talking to the actors, we focused on the things that were lying underneath. It’s really existential for them.
I don’t want this to sound like I’m complaining about the length, but I was wondering if you always intended it to be 162 minutes?
No. I actually hoped it would be shorter. I really didn’t expect it to be this long. I remember during shooting, I said to my producer, “Next time I want to make a really long film — a really over-long film.” And then [laughs] I realized in editing, it’s already an over-long film. My producers said, “You really want to make a film that’s longer than this?” [Laughs] I thought it would be maybe 135 minutes. We tried shorter versions, and the film was less complex. Some of the scenes were really close to being banal. It all takes time. It’s a fragile thing, the length of a film. I didn’t think [a long film] would be a problem. Some people were afraid it was too long for the cinemas, but if we watch a TV series, we watch three of them. That’s long, too.
This is a spoiler and shouldn’t be read by anyone who hasn’t already seen the film [SERIOUSLY, TURN BACK NOW, READ THIS AFTER YOU’VE SEEN IT, DON’T BE SPOILERED], but tell me about that strange costume Winifried wears in the party scene late in.
It was in the script that he should choose a costume under which he disappears completely. I was really lucky to find this one, because it suited everything I was looking for. I wanted something that represented both sides of Winifried: sad and melancholic, but also funny. It also stinks like hell. It’s made out of real goat fur. When we were at Cannes [where Simonischek wore the costume again], I could smell him 200 meters away. The head is very tall, so they have to carry it on their chin; all the movements are from the neck, which makes it very lively. It’s Bulgarian and they use it to scare off evil spirits. Did you see where I put it earlier in the movie?
Actually, no, and I’ve seen the film twice.
I made it very obvious, and people still don’t see it. He’s at the party and he sees just the head part. He asks [the party host], “What is this?” But nobody catches it. Maybe it’s because it’s right after Ines sings [spoiler].