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From the Archive: Maren Ade on Toni Erdmann

Nothing Concrete text
16 Jun 2021
12 min listen

We're rewatching the 2016 German comedy-drama, Toni Erdmann which sees a practical joking father try to reconnect with his hard working daughter and in the process creating a ludicrous alter ego

From the Archive sees us dig into our extensive contemporary and classical music and cinema podcast archive as we rediscover interviews and discussions with artists, with our long-standing producer and presenter, Ben Eshmade. 

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Ben Eshmade: Hello, and welcome to Nothing Concrete, the Barbican podcast. I'm Ben Eshmade and on this week's archive edition, we're back in the cinema and we're watching 2016 comedy drama by German director Maren Ade. A mouthful of false teeth, a wonky wig and a mischievous smile. Let me introduce to you, Toni. 

Maren Ade: I can only write about things that I know, I mean Toni, it also goes back to something Winifred maybe once was, like that he was a radical character.

BE: This is the story of practical joker Winifred Conradi, a father who tries to reconnect with his hard working daughter Ines and in the process, creating a ludicrous alter ego. 

Woman: You work way too much. 
Ines: I know. I know. It's it's really busy. 
Woman: Because we were just fighting over you know, who had the most horrible weekend? 
Ines: Well, I probably had the most horrible weekend of my entire life. My father visited me spontaneously without any warning.
Toni: Can I offer the ladies a glass of champagne? I'm Toni. Toni. Toni Erdmann.

BE: I caught up with the director Maren Ade to learn more about her thoughts, feelings and the family inspiration behind this Golden Globe Award winning and Oscar nominated film. 
I read that the character of Winifred or Toni was inspired by your father. 

MA: Yeah, it's it's partly true. Inspired is maybe right. I mean, I borrowed a little thing that was inspiring, is that he used for a while, some fake teeth. Yeah, he did a little bit like what Winifred did that he put them in just for some seconds. I mean, he never did Toni Erdmann. He never stayed in character. So but I like that.

BE: I was looking at the sort of the summary of the story. There's the phrase, the daughter who became too serious, and it sounds like a fairy story or, or a or moral story. 

MA: Oh no, it's just these things happen when you like shorten a synopsis, or like, or when you do, like, a lock line or how it's called, I mean, I'm completely and it shouldn't be moral. So and I'm, I also don't believe that she should be different, you know, than she is I mean, she should be maybe more happy and decide how she can achieve that for herself. But I don't think that she's wrong in that job. No, no, I think it's everything is not so bad what she's doing, it's just that she lost herself a bit between all these roles that she's playing.

Ines: Sorry about that my father made a stupid joke, we have to solve this problem. 

MA: I mean, I can only write about things that I not know. I mean, within us it was there was also a lot of research involved concerning her job. But it's, it's always the others, I always put something personal in inside the characters. And with her character, it was a bit that I could, that I found out more and more. I could identify more and more with her. I mean, filmmaking is also something where you have to put the film very high over the individual and things like that. So there it's also about hierarchies in that job. And also her just in general, as a woman struggling with things like stupid dresses, or I don't know, that's something I all know. Yeah.

BE: Sexist men as well in the office. She has to, she has to...

MA: Face this man. I mean, sexist man. Yeah, or just men that are sexist, I don't know, without knowing they are or also that you're so used to it that you participate in being sexist a bit yourself. That's also something. 

BE: Let's go back to the false teeth. And maybe maybe we can add the wig to the false teeth. And this is how Winifred becomes Toni Erdmann. It's such an incredible physical transformation. Could you talk a bit about that? 

MA: Yeah, I think actually, it's amazing what he did like in the contrast between Winifred and Toni, and I think Peter is somewhere in the middle. So also in Winifred was like a transformation already for him. Like we changed a lot on his hair, the way he's like, this very defensive guy. Sad sometimes, weak sometimes. Yeah. Undecided about things. So this is something Peter is like, a very impressive guy. So this was one part of the transformation. And Toni for sure. I mean, it's always, he had that put on that wig and the teeth and what was really difficult is that Peter is a very good actor and he had to play Winifed, who was very bad actor or not a bad actor, but he's not as good as Peter. And, and still it should be good enough to be believable or to be funny for us in the end. And so this was something. Yeah, he had to walk really a thin line.
Ines: Please. Now. Thank you very much. It was really interesting with the painting.... Thank you.
Toni: Maybe we can sing a song for you? Ladies and gentleman - I'm going to sing a song for you. Give an applause. 
[Music starts: Whitney Houston's Greatest Love of All]
Ines [Singing]: I believe the children are our future. Teach them well and let them go their way. Show them all the beauty they possess inside. 

BE: There's a comment that Winifred or Toni makes later on where he talks about the idea that he has encounters with people. And I think it's a film made up of encounters.

MA: Yeah, he's trying to have encounters. And that's something that was like, yeah, I mean, the value of a guy like Winfried like or of his generation. It was it was a value to it was a good thing to have a human encounter. That was something that already made the world better. And for her, it's, it's not only the opposite, it's just, it's nothing. Why should I have an encounter? I cannot, doesn't change anything. It makes it for her even more complicated things. For me, it's more like, they really have a different system of values. And for Ines, his view on the world has become, yeah, almost naive. But still, there's also a longing, maybe with her, I don't know. But in my generation for that time, I mean, it was yeah, it was, we thought things were maybe easier because there was a clear, especially in Germany, he belongs to that post war generation. They had a clear enemy. And so for us, it became too complex to the question who's responsible for what. So Winfried, he doesn't yeah, he's also hiding a lot of aggressions, I think, towards her.

BE: One thing I thought about after watching the film, it's two and a half hours long, even though it's, you know, I was told it was a comedy, there's so much drama in there as well. But it builds towards this point. And, and the amount of catharsis and and power it has, because it's been building so slowly, I presume that was very deliberate. 

MA: Yeah, I didn't know how that effect would be. I mean, when I work on something, I work very carefully on each situation so that it's as precise as possible or that it's like complex, and that you have different angles, perspectives. And then in the end, I am also I'm happy that it works. I mean, that it's like this slow rhythm that it builds this up. But also, like in terms of comedy, I found out that it's really important sometimes to have a break, or to have an unclear situation before the next thing happens, because they play a game also, and they sometimes don't know are going on about the name, like what are we doing? Like? And I found out that these surprises also work better when you have this moment around, the question around what's coming? What's why, why are we watching? Or why are we standing here? 

Ines [Singing] I decided long ago, never to walk in anyone's shadow...

BE: What's it like working on a film that you're not only directing, writing, but you're producing it, it must be an awful workload?
MA: I try with producing I have two very great colleagues that do a lot of work, like the producing work, especially when I'm the director, because if I leave that position, it's empty, you know. There are two or three producers, or like two, at least and so I tried to I mean, it helps me a lot because in general we work very open and try to decide together where we spent the money on. It's very creative, where you spend your money with filmmaking, because it has immediately an effect or very direct effect on the film, you know, like on how it will be in the end. And so it's something you always it's very good to be involved there.

BE: It was interesting because I always think of producing as a negative thing. It's just usually responsibility to go out and beg people for money, but it sounds like it's much more interesting than that. 

MA: Yeah, the getting money is one thing but when you have the money, then it gets interesting for where you spend it. You know, you can put it in shooting days and reduce the technique side. But if, if you just find you, you have to have a vision, which is the most important thing or how you can make the best film out of it. 

BE: Last question, does Toni ever come back to visit you?

MA: [Laughs] To visit me? In my dreams... No. No. I don't know at the moment I finished the film like in May, just very shortly before the premiere and so I was very happy that I that Toni Erdmann is gone now and has is doing has his own private life now with other people. No, I think he's, he's not coming back.

BE: Maybe I'll say don't listen to this moment until you've watched the film but the costume that Toni wears that at the end, at the end of the film with lots of hair, is absolutely incredible. I presume that's real?

MA: Yeah, it's exists like that I just there were just some heavy bells on it that I took away because they were too heavy and very loud, but it's exactly like that. And it's really there to scare evil spirits away. It's from Bulgaria and they have it in different colours. It's also exists in white, in white and brown. And it's made out of a certain type of goat a long hair goat. Yeah, it's really a lot of dead goats. It also smells a lot.

BE: But it goes back to the the comedy teeth and the wig. It's the ultimate physical prop that you could have could have asked for in the film. 

MA: I was very happy with that thing. I mean, it's for me I searched for something that is like close to Winifred's inside or that is the costume that is yeah to his insides. So and to his soul, or I don't know. So and this sad and also fatherly, funny thing. I was very, it was big luck that we that this really existed.

Toni: I'm Toni. Toni Erdmann. I'm consultant and coach.

BE: Thanks to Marlon for speaking to me. Baffling and beautiful in sentiment and execution. This film only gets better with age. I'm Ben Eshmade. Thanks for listening to this archive edition of Nothing Concrete, the Barbican podcast presented here to inspire more people to discover and love the arts with weekly episodes of archive finds and theme series. 

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