Toni Erdmann And The Resurgence Of German Cinema

Image: Sandra Huller, © German Films/Mathias Bothor

Image: Sandra Huller, © German Films/Mathias Bothor

Emma Jones

Heard the one about the three hour German comedy that’s tipped for the Foreign Language Oscar? If not, meet Maren Ade and her film Toni Erdmann – all 162 minutes of it.

The last time a father-daughter relationship figured in such depth, Liam Neeson was giving his teenager instructions as she lay under the bed about to be Taken and kidnapped by an Albanian gang. And Toni Erdmann, played by Peter Simonischek, truly tries to save his daughter too – from herself. Sandra Huller stars as a too-busy woman who gives her hitherto slack father short shrift when he turns up to visit her out of the blue. So he adopts an alter ego, complete with enormous false teeth, to win her over. If this sounds like niche comedy, just know that rave reviews from the moment it premiered at Cannes are signaling the film to be the biggest international German success since 2005’s Oscar nominee, Downfall.


“It’s always good to be able to surprise. I’m interested in that kind of jarring, awkward laughter.  There are a lot of moments in the film that are funny because the characters are so desperate. It’s definitely not clear comedy though, the drama is the starting point for everything.”


“I don’t mind the surprise that it’s comedic, the stereotyping about Germans not being funny,” says Karlsruhe-born director Maren Ade, already known within an European audience for her slick relationship observations on in previous films.

“It’s always good to be able to surprise. I’m interested in that kind of jarring, awkward laughter.  There are a lot of moments in the film that are funny because the characters are so desperate. It’s definitely not clear comedy though, the drama is the starting point for everything.”

Sandra Huller, whose performance as estranged daughter Ines was so nuanced that many critics at Cannes thought this year’s Best Actress prize should have been hers, says that she “hasn’t seen anything like the film before or after. I’ve never seen any movie where there are so many different layers within the story. And they are there all the time, they don’t even get talked about in the film, but audiences pick up on them.  I don’t know anyone else who can do that apart from Maren. That’s the joy of a writer-director.”

She adds that the movie was never supposed to be two and three-quarters of an hour – usually a concern for directors who aren’t Peter Jackson. “I know though that Maren tried to cut it down in the edit suite. But the shorter it got in length, the longer it felt. In the end she had to be brave and say, ‘this is my film,’ “ she explains.

All makers of foreign language films know how hard it is to get attention in Hollywood – the last time Germany managed it was over a decade ago, when a new wave of films including Goodbye Lenin!, The Edukators and Downfall swept in names including Daniel Bruhl and Bruno Ganz to a global audience.


With an unlovely hero, an unlikeable heroine, and an unthinkable running time – Toni Erdmann could be Germany’s unlikeliest success.


Image: Julia Jentsch, © German Films/Mathias Bothor

Image: Julia Jentsch, © German Films/Mathias Bothor

Ten years later, the names put forward for international success by an initiative called Face to Face with German films all happen to be female. Not only does it include Sandra Huller from Toni Erdmann, but Julia Jentsch (herself in both The Edukators and Downfall) as well as the young star of Francois Ozon’s new film Frantz, Paula Beer, and Liv Lisa Fries, who will star in Babylon Berlin, a TV series set in the 1920s and hotly tipped for crossover appeal to an English-speaking audience once it’s released next year.

“I am not allowed to say very much about it,” mourns Liv. “Beyond that it’s directed by the very talented Tom Tykwer and that it’s set in the middle of the Weimar Republic.

Image: Liv Lisa Fries, © German Films/Mathias Bothor

Image: Liv Lisa Fries, © German Films/Mathias Bothor

“ I think what’s interesting is that it’s before nationalism and they don’t know what is going to come in the next decade – I find that really interesting, and sobering. I think what’s amazing is that finally, Germany is making films that aren’t just about the Nazis, or the time of the DDR. I think it’s wonderful that audiences can see that Germany existed in other times in history, and also of course in the present.”


"I think what’s amazing is that finally, Germany is making films that aren’t just about the Nazis, or the time of the DDR. I think it’s wonderful that audiences can see that Germany existed in other times in history, and also of course in the present."


Paula Beer believes that streaming sites such as Netflix have made all the difference to local independent films, “as you know even in Germany, you can be in an interesting film, and it will play to one cinema in Berlin and then close, it’s the same everywhere. But on these sites you can find films from all over the world, and people are watching them – we know there is an international audience for good cinema, it’s just a question of providing a platform where people can watch it.

Image: Paula Beer, © German Films/Mathias Bothor

Image: Paula Beer, © German Films/Mathias Bothor

She also thinks that if Toni Erdmann delivers on its early critical promise, “that it won’t be easy, but it will open doors for Germany again.”

With an unlovely hero, an unlikeable heroine, and an unthinkable running time – Toni Erdmann could be Germany’s unlikeliest success.

 

Toni Erdmann will open in the USA on December 25th, 2016 and in the UK on February 3rd, 2017. Face to Face with German Films is represented by  Paula Beer, Liv Lisa Fries, Sandra Huller, Julia Jentsch, Saskia Rosendahl and Lilith Stangenberg. 


Want to learn more or take action? Here are some recommended resources:

 
Screen Shot 2016-10-31 at 9.55.03 AM.png
 
 

Learn more about FACE TO FACE, an initiative that spotlights six of the most influential German actresses working in the industry today.

 

You may also like...