by writer/director Maren Ade
In the very beginning there was this interest in doing a film about family relations, about family structures, about these roles that are imposed on us in our family, regardless of whether we like these roles or not. So I thought it could be quite an adventure for two family members to meet as strangers, to get to know each other outside of all their set ways of communicating.
So I had this constellation of these two very opposing characters in mind. This late-60s father Winfried, who’s a bit of a prankster, sometimes stuck in his humor, who had lost his daughter to the globalized world, where she is living a life very far apart from his political ideals. I saw Winfried as a very German character, as he belongs to the post-war generation who was very political, having a clear enemy within the generation before who was involved in the Nationalsozialimus. This generation that we call "Alt86" tried to raise their children with a lot of human values, and with an idea of a world without borders. And I liked the idea that he is confronted now with this daughter who works in this capitalistic environment, in this globalized world he was once fighting for but where all his ideals were turned into the opposite.
And while writing about family, I realized how hard it is to escape your own. My father has a really good repertoire of jokes, and ever since his humor has accompanied me. But what inspired me most was a pair of false teeth he used for a while. I got them as a giveaway present from the premiere of the first Austin Powers, where I worked as a waiter during film school, and I gave them to him as I thought he could use them. So it became his passion to put them in for some seconds, standing at the red light looking over to the others in the car, irritating waiters in the restaurant or before telling us something very serious. (He even went once to his dentist with them.) So I liked this moment when he tried to escape his usual form, but still as an amateur was not able to stay in character very long. So I started to research comedians and their relationships to their alter egos and thereby encountered the work of Andy Kaufman. And I really fell in love with his radical, modern humor. So besides his over-the-top alter ego Tony Clifton (which I refer to in the title of Toni Erdmann) his whole approach to life through performance inspired me a lot for Toni Erdmann.
Concerning the daughter character, Ines, it was a bit more complicated because so much research was necessary. I wanted her to be largely defined by her work, so I had to understand her business world, something very far from my own life. I interviewed a lot of people, especially women working in Eastern Europe. I had to become aware of how to approach the political topics and decided it’d be stronger and more painful for the movie to raise questions without answering them. The more women I met, the closer I came to Ines’ character and the more I could understand her struggle in this male-dominated environment, as well as her nihilistic choice for a lifestyle full of complicated injustices. I saw her as a very self-determined woman on one side but on the other side someone who had imprisoned herself in all the roles she plays in life.
For Ines her father’s view on the world is almost naïve or she would say: his way of seeing the world is a luxury that her generation doesn’t have anymore, because things became too complex, and almost impossible to say who is responsible for what.
But my biggest luck was the third character—Toni—who became a door-opener to my fantasy. I could let unlikeley things happen and was able to escape the pure realism of my previous films and come closer to "bigger than life" moments.
Toni was always Winfried driven by the wish to come closer to his daughter but also searching for a more honest form of communication by provoking her so much. And about the genre—my hope was to make a film that combines the most dramatic or hysterical peaks from comedy and drama. And since Winfried plays this comedy for his daughter out of big desperation, both genres were always there at the same time, which was good because it was not me as an author who had to be funny for an audience.