The visitor

Maren Ade and Sandra Hüller discuss work, meerkats and Toni Erdmann.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Sandra Hüller with Toni Erdmann director/writer Maren Ade
Sandra Hüller with Toni Erdmann director/writer Maren Ade Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Maren Ade has teamed up again with costume designer Gitti Fuchs and editor Heike Parplies of her The Forest For The Trees (Der Wald Vor Lauter Bäumen) and Everyone Else (Alle Anderen) to bring us Germany's Oscar submission Toni Erdmann, starring Sandra Hüller and Peter Simonischek.

Rainer Maria Rilke, Andy Kaufman's Tony Clifton, meerkats (not from Ang Lee's Life Of Pi), Frauke Finsterwalder's Finsterworld, vintage Yves Saint Laurent, and corporate madness came up in my conversation with Maren Ade and Sandra Hüller.

Kent Jones with Maren Ade, Peter Simonischek and Sandra Hüller
Kent Jones with Maren Ade, Peter Simonischek and Sandra Hüller Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

With a supporting cast including Viktorija Malektorovych, Hadewych Minis, Lucy Russell, Michael Wittenborn, Ingrid Bisu, Thomas Loibl, and Trystan Pütter, Ade gives her characters a chance to rediscover themselves in song and skin-deep encounters of the third or fourth or fifth kind.

Toni Erdmann, which had its world premiere at Cannes, is a father-daughter corporate world screwball drama and unlike anything else made today. Ines Conradi (Hüller) is a successful business consultant stationed in Bucharest with her eyes on a promotion to Singapore. Her father Winfried (Simonischek) gets to see her too little and after Willy, his dog, dies, decides on a surprise visit.

This doesn't go very well and so Toni Erdmann, Winfried's alter ego, sporting false teeth ("my crowns are so boring") and a wig, enters the picture. Erdmann, the catalyst, infiltrates the hierarchies, Ines painstakingly tries to function in and reveals the madness of it all. Maren Ade with laugh-out-loud humour and rib-tickling care gives permission to ask what it means to be human.

Anne-Katrin Titze: Was there ever another title? Because this one is perfect. It's like Mildred Pierce or James Bond.

Maren Ade: That's good. Now it feels good, the title. No, there was never another title. I did research also on comedians and I liked a lot Andy Kaufman. And he had several characters and he had one character Tony Clifton, which was this very bad guy, bar singer, very over the top. And it was a big contrast to himself … So that's a bit where the Toni was selected. I think Toni it's an international name and then you have that German Erdmann, which is like a downer.

Sandra Hüller as Ines Conradi:
Sandra Hüller as Ines Conradi: "I couldn't do it when I work hard all day and then party hard all night."

Sandra Hüller: Also Erdmann was from Erdmännchen. There was a scene with them in the film.

MA: Yeah, the brother had Erdmännchen. Do you know what an Erdmännchen is?

AKT: Meerkat.

MA: Meerkat. Meerkat?

After the exchange above at the New York Film Festival press conference, moderated by festival director Kent Jones, the three of us met to continue our conversation in private at the Regency Hotel on Park Avenue.

Sandra Hüller: I like the way you dress. The blouse and the coat.

Maren Ade: I thought the same when you came in. I thought this is something I should …

SH: I want to have that too!

Anne-Katrin Titze: The blouse is vintage Yves Saint Laurent.

MA/SH: Ahhhh.

Ines Conradi with her father (Peter Simonischek)
Ines Conradi with her father (Peter Simonischek)

MA: Is there a place where you go for good vintage?

We have a short conversation about vintage clothing stores in New York and then proceed to Toni Erdmann.

AKT: At the press conference, I was asking you about the title. It's funny that the translation for meerkats didn't come up before.

MA: In Germany, they asked me why Erdmännchen?

SH: And there was a scene in the film.

AKT: That's what you said and what I wanted to follow up on. So there was a scene with Erdmännchen?

MA: No, he [Toni Erdmann] was saying in the bar that he has a brother in Germany.

SH: Who was doing silk painting.

MA: And was having meerkats. [Pauses, then laughs] That was too stupid. I cut that out. I feel it's good that I cut it out. I liked it for very long but now I'm 100% sure.

Ines Conradi with the Hennebergs (Viktorija Malektorovych and Michael Wittenborn)
Ines Conradi with the Hennebergs (Viktorija Malektorovych and Michael Wittenborn)

AKT: Erdmännchen reminded me of something I hadn't thought of in a very long time. There was a record I loved as a child by the Augsburger Puppenkiste in the Seventies, called Kleiner König Kalle Wirsch. [He is the king of the meerkats and his enemy who wants to take over his throne is called Zoppo Trump!]

MA: I know it by name.

AKT: In Toni Erdmann, many of the most absurd scenes have to do with jobs. At first, he is pretending to be a bomb defuser, then he is doing this special thing as the Grim Reaper in the nursing home, then it's business man/coach/consultant.

MA: And ambassador!

AKT: Of course, German ambassador. What I thought was so great is that your [Sandra Hüller as Ines Conradi] character, all you are concerned with is this job. So it really is a film about work, too, besides many other things.

MA: Yeah, I was interested in giving the work environment enough space. Because for me, when films do that, I always like that. Because we spend so much time ourselves with our work. And in films it's sometimes like, oh, she's doing this. And that's it. And so many interesting things can happen there.

Toni Erdmann and Ines:
Toni Erdmann and Ines: "Yeah, I was interested in giving the work environment enough space."

There are good [TV] series now at the moment where you spend a lot of time there. But in films when you have both, like a private story and a work story, sometimes it's treated so badly this work part. And it's her life and I also found it simply interesting what they are really doing - consultants.

AKT: Yeah. And what they are doing at night, too!

MA: Compared to what they're doing during the day, yeah.

AKT: It seems almost more stressful, don't you think?

MA: The nightlife? I'm happy that I don't have that.

SH: I couldn't do it when I work hard all day and then party hard all night.

MA: Work hard, party hard. That's like the slogan. But they are younger. A lot of the consultants just finished business school.

AKT: It almost works as a turning point in the film when you see the guy [Trystan Pütter as Tim] with the champagne bottle at his crotch. It's more absurd than even what Toni Erdmann does. It's accepted corporate madness.

Ines with Tim (Trystan Pütter):
Ines with Tim (Trystan Pütter): "I wanted to have this setting because of that idea that today anything goes."

MA: Yeah, with that scene … I mean the club is really like I found it there, this club with all that was inside. It's very realistic. There are even more crazy clubs. I wanted to have this setting because of that idea that today anything goes. It's so hard to break some rules. Even for Toni. So he ends up in that setting where he is just a little side gag.

SH: Where he [Toni] is regulating things! He is putting the bottle away, cleaning. He is a grown-up person. Which is, I think, a great moment.

Coming up - Costumes, filming in Romania, connecting Sandra Hüller with Finsterworld to King Kong, hierarchies, double standards, Rilke and a dress.

Toni Erdmann opens in the US on December 25 and in the UK on February 3, 2017.

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