Writer-director Maren Ade discusses Toni Erdmann, rehearsing with actors to craft realistic performances, and handling dual protagonists.
Writer-director Maren Ade’s third feature, Toni Erdmann, opens on the image of a front door. “First, it’s empty for a while. I found it funny to watch that door,” said Ade. A postman finally arrives with a package for “Toni Erdmann”, but it’s Winifred Conradi (Peter Simonischek) who answers the door, claiming the package is for his brother, recently out of prison. A minute later, Simonischek returns to the door, this time dressed as Toni: without a shirt and with ridiculous false teeth.
Ade recalled, “I often asked myself, ‘Do you know immediately that he’s doing this? That it’s a joke. It’s not the brother?’ I think it’s a good characterization of him. On one side, it’s bizarre what he’s doing, but he excuses himself for doing that joke. For me, there was this longing for him for a new form of communication, not just the postman coming giving the package, how would it be normally. I thought it would be a good introduction to Toni later because you had to see where it comes from. You had to see the part of the Toni that already existed before. It’s the only time when we’re really surprised, when we don’t know who is that guy [Toni]. I wanted [viewers] to make up our own opinion.”
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We soon learn that Winifred is a lonely, aging music teacher who is estranged from his adult daughter, Ines (Sandra Hüller) — a high-powered management consultant working in Bucharest. When Winifred’s dog dies, he impulsively decides to visit his daughter to rekindle their relationship. In an effort to bridge the gap between them, he takes on the role of Toni Erdmann to make his daughter laugh, to mask his insecurities, and to find a way to infiltrate her life.
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At the beginning of the film, it’s Winifred whom we follow closely. But by the midway point, Ines’s journey — her self-loathing at being the cause of further economic destruction in Bucharest, her dissatisfaction in her personal life, and the everyday sexism she faces at work — takes over, with Winifred tagging along as “Toni Erdmann”, trying to help. It’s a beautiful look at two people slowly, tentatively finding their way back to each other, when talking about their feelings and connecting doesn’t come naturally — but self-loathing and depression do.I really tried to avoid there being just one simple answer or perspective because you just follow one character.Click To Tweet
“I read somewhere that it’s almost a rule that the person you start the film with will stay the main character,” said Ade. “Because of that, I was really happy. For me, she [Ines] really takes over the film in the middle. It’s her development, her life. With two characters, if it’s well balanced, the risk that you judge someone too easily is not so high. I really tried to avoid there being just one simple answer or perspective because you just follow one character.” The process of creating dual protagonists was “often a question of camera movement and who we are following more, or on which side we are more, or with whom we are entering a scene. I always tried to give enough space for each perspective or opinion or feeling. I like when the viewer can decide in the end on which side he is riding.”
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Ensuring that there is a clear motivation for every action a character takes is crucial to Ade’s process as a director. “It always needs to be logical what the characters do. I really need to understand them. If I have doubts about, for example, why does [Ines] open the door naked?” It’s the beginning of the film’s most surreal and hilarious sequence. Fed up with her too-tight dress in which she can’t reach her shoes, Ines strips before greeting her first birthday party guest naked. “We rehearsed so long on that little thing. How is she stuck in the dress? How does it start with the shoes? These physical [things] were something I really cared about — that it’s never just me as an author who’s inventing, that it really comes out of the character.”Why does Ines open the door naked? We rehearsed so long on that little thing. Click To Tweet
Consequently, Ade begins rehearsing with her actors long before they start actually shooting the film, and then on location, when possible, before the shooting process begins. “The cameraman was there in every rehearsal. Always, he acted like a third, fourth, or fifth actor. I also tape every rehearsal. I get a clear picture of how it will be in the end, although it’s very clear that the camera follows the actors in the first place, and it’s very soft how I start to put them more into the frame. I’m very careful with that because I don’t want to disturb them. It gets very fast that it looks arranged.”The cameraman was there in every rehearsal. Always, he acted like a third, fourth, or fifth actor. Click To Tweet
“You lose so much time on a shooting day arranging all these things: who comes in when, who takes a glass, why…If you have the setting, and it’s clear, then you can come to better point when it gets more natural on the shooting days. As I shoot, I repeat the scenes very often. Most of the work is to find the right subtext for each scene, or to find the most dramatic, intense psychological struggle under the surface of the dialogue.”
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