WHO IS TONI ERDMANN?
A three-hour German epic could be the funniest film of 2017. No, really
FORGET DAVID BRENT. If you really want to squirm in your cinema seat, Toni Erdmann is the character for you. Grinning behind a set of fake gnashers, posing as a lifestyle guru or just bringing big-hearted chaos to his ladder-climbing daughter’s life, he’s like a cross between Barry Humphries and a box of Christmas crackers. He’s impish, deeply embarrassing and based on real life. “I was inspired by my father,” laughs Maren Ade. “I gave him a set of fake teeth I got at the Munich premiere of Austin Powers and they became his most important prop. A bit like in the film, he’d put them in if he wanted to tell us something important.”
Ade’s hilarious, moving and slightly autobiographical film has been a darling at festivals from Cannes to Toronto, stirred talk of a US remake, and looks set for an Oscar nod, too. Yes, Germany’s pick for Best Foreign Language Film will wow Academy members with scenes of nudity, pastry-based sex and whoopee cushions. Just three of the things they didn’t get with The White Ribbon.
Erdmann is actually the alter ego of another character in the film, septuagenarian prankster Winfried (Peter Simonischek). Trying to bring a smile to the face of his hard-bitten offspring (Sandra Hüller), he surprises her in Bucharest as she finalises a major oil deal. Things, needless to say, go badly in the most awkward ways imaginable. “There was a lot of work with Peter to make Winfried visible [underneath Toni],” recalls Ade of her creation. “He’s an amateur; that’s the funny thing about him. It was important for the film that it was believable that a real person was doing this.”
One of Toni’s surprises sees him inexplicably turning up at his daughter’s birthday party in a Wookiee-like costume. “It’s called the Kukeri,” she explains of the garb’s folkloric roots. “It comes from the mountains of Bulgaria and people wear it to scare evil spirits away. It
was 40 degrees in Bucharest, so we had to get a stuntman to wear it. We put ice onto his body to cool him down.” If this all sounds a bit Pythonesque, you’d be on the right track. “The ’70s were, for me, the birth of modern humour,” says Ade of her influences. “People like Andy Kaufman and Monty Python.” Hearing a Python, Terry Gilliam, was at Empire’s screening, the director instantly turns fangirl. “Oh my God, that’s so cool!” The admiration cuts both ways, it seems.
TONI ERDMANN IS IN CINEMAS FROM 3 FEBRUARY
Sandra Hüller and Peter Simonischek as Ines and dad Winfried. Below: Winfried mid-easter egg-painting party.