How Andy Kaufman Inspired Germany's Oscar Contender 'Toni Erdmann'

Courtesy of Komplizen Film/Sony Pictures Classics
'Toni Erdmann'

The late, great alternative comic was the template (along with the director's own father) for the wacky titular character in the film.

For her third film, German director Maren Ade knew she wanted to tell a story about the relationship between a grown woman and her estranged father, a tireless practical joker.

In Toni Erdmann, the father — Winfried, played by Peter Simonischek — takes drastic measures to reconnect with his successful but emotionally distant daughter, Ines (Sandra Huller). Putting on a wig and (very bad) fake teeth, he tells her colleagues he is "Toni Erdmann: Life Coach" and proceeds to disrupt Ines' life, trying to provoke a confrontation.

The 39-year-old Ade always has mixed the private and the public in her work, and the role of the father came, in part, from her own dad, a passionate prankster who would stick in false teeth — obtained from an Austin Powers movie premiere a decade earlier — "whenever he would sit us down to tell us something very, very serious."

The other source of inspiration was more obscure: the late comic Andy Kaufman, perhaps best known for playing Latka on the famed American sitcom Taxi.

"Andy Kaufman isn't really known in Germany, but while I was doing research, certain German comedians kept referring to him. At one point, someone gave me a video. That was it: The next three weeks were spent watching and reading everything I could find. I'd found my Toni Erdmann."

The character's name is a Germanic combination of Kaufman and Tony Clifton, one of the comic's alter egos, a sleazy but aggressive lounge singer he performed as onstage and in several TV appearances. Kaufman publicly claimed that Clifton was a real lounge singer he'd met in Las Vegas in 1969.

Kaufman's approach to comedy — pushing a situation to extremes, not being afraid to annoy or provoke an audience and walking the line between reality and performance — helped shape the structure of the film. But Ade broke with Kaufman's style by adding another layer of reality: When Winfried plays Toni Erdmann, you can see his desperation. "That was essential," she says. "That beneath the performance, you can see what was really happening in their relationship. In the end, I wanted the relationship to go somewhere and not just play for laughs."

This story first appeared in the Dec. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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