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Maren Ade arrives in Cannes as a double anomaly — one of just three female directors in this year’s 20-film competition lineup and the first German to have a chance at the Palme d’Or since Wim Wenders screened Palermo Shooting in Cannes in 2008.
Her first two features — the 2003 Sundance Jury winner The Forest for the Trees and crossover success Everyone Else (winner, in 2009, of two Silver Bears at Berlin: the grand jury prize and best actress for star Birgit Minichmayr) — established Ade as a rising star of Europe’s art house scene. Her deeply intimate portraits of relationships gone wrong have drawn comparisons to the work of Ingmar Bergman and John Cassavetes (Ade is a big fan of the latter).
In Toni Erdmann, the relationship in question is between a hippie father and his estranged daughter. Worried her life as a corporate executive isn’t making her happy, the father takes extreme measures, dressing up as a rude practical joker and disrupting her life to provoke a confrontation.
Ade, 39, spoke to THR ahead of Toni Erdmann’s Cannes debut about family dynamics, having a second baby while finishing the film and why she’s in favor of a subsidy quota for female directors.
Where did the idea for Toni Erdmann first come from?
In the beginning, there is always the constellation of the characters. In all of my three films, it started with the characters. I had this father in mind, Winfried, a music teacher with a hippie lifestyle who is a passionate practical joker, and on the other side his daughter, Ines, who chose a life very far away from his ideals as a corporate consultant. I was interested in telling something about family — about the assigned roles everybody plays, about the ritualistic patterns of a family and about the secret wish to escape all that and start from zero.
It’s rare to have a film focus on the relationship between a father and daughter.
Yes, the daughter is usually a sidekick for the main male character. I like to start with a clear setting and have a father and daughter duel it out. But during the writing, I realized that it’s a complicated topic. Parents and children have a lifelong connection; it’s a heavy thing. The twist of having the father transform into Toni brought me to a story full of different emotions. The work was to make it a unique story, but to leave enough freedom for the viewer to identify.
Winfried accuses Ines of being too serious. That sounds like a typical accusation men make against successful or ambitious women.
No, it’s not about that. It’s more that he is confronting her with his humor. A humor that they once shared. He wants to test if she is still there. He wants to provoke her and try and get his daughter back. It’s not that he doesn’t want her to be successful, but he really doubts that she’s happy.
How close is the story of Toni Erdmann to your own life?
My father is a very passionate joker. When I was 20, I was invited to a premiere of Austin Powers, and as a giveaway, they gave these fake teeth. I gave them to him, because I had the feeling he would really use them, and he did get a lot out of them — sticking them in before going to his dentist or complaining about food in a restaurant. And then I also have this weakness for Andy Kaufman who worked with different characters, one of them called Tony Clifton.
How difficult was it to balance the recent birth of your second child with the making of this movie?
What would help this gender discussion a lot would be to start asking my male colleagues the same question. I think we would get very interesting answers from my male colleagues, too — how they combine their family life with their jobs. But yes, my second son is only half-a-year-old, and I did the final editing plus the rest of the postproduction over the last five months. The thing is, you can organize everything, but this doesn’t solve the emotional side. Making a film — especially during shooting and postproduction — is like a management job. There is very little time for private life, but as I am my own producer, I had the possibility to organize the whole thing as perfect as possible for my two sons and my needs. Most of the women in films who did something similar have been their own producers.
You are the first German director in competition in Cannes for nearly a decade. What does that mean for you, and how would you judge the current state of the German film industry?
There are more filmmakers who could be in Cannes, but in the last few years, a lot of them chose the Berlinale instead. So it’s not that Cannes rejected all the German films in the last eight years. We don’t have enough radical films, because there isn’t enough money for the type of films Cannes likes to show. I was lucky to get a bigger budget for this film, because my last movie not only won two Silver Bears, but it was also a box-office success in Germany. This way I could make a bigger step.
The gender discussion about women in film comes up every year in Cannes. Do we need a quota, like Swedish Film Institute’s Fifty/Fifty by 2020, in which half of all films subsidized in Europe should be directed by women?
There are not enough women directing films. In Germany, we have this discussion now about a quota system as well, and I think we should try it, because concerning the public money, it should be equal. If someone told me in film school that it might be necessary to have a quota system, I would have thought he is crazy as there were almost half women, half men in the production as well as in the directing class. But I think it should be tried out and checked again after 10 years. And still I think the system has to be oriented on the actual amount of women handing in projects.
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