Telluride 43: “Toni Erdmann”

The unique German film “Toni Erdmann” stood out at the Telluride Film Festival. Guest director Volker Schlondorff (“The Tin Drum”) accurately emphasized its originality by describing it as a cross “between Bergman and Borat”. The emotional relationships of the former are combined with the bizarre disguises of the later.

Sandra Huller and Peter Simonischek in "Toni Erdmann"

Sandra Huller and Peter Simonischek in “Toni Erdmann”

I very much enjoyed a conversation with the film’s lead actor Peter Simonischek at a press dinner sponsored by Sony Pictures Classics, the film’s distributor. Simonischek described the film to me as about a father (his character) who has drifted apart from his daughter and his attempt to get closer to her. The father uses practical jokes and a fake identity in attempting to reconnect. Simonischek spoke about his extensive stage experience of over 40 years in Germany, including performing in American plays.

Peter Simonischek at the Telluride Film Festival   (c) Ed Scheid

Peter Simonischek at the Telluride Film Festival (c) Ed Scheid

In “Toni Erdmann”, Winifried (Peter Simonischek) is a divorced piano teacher who now lacks a student. His daughter Ines (Sandra Huller) is a workaholic corporate strategist. The time Ines has devoted to her career has given her little personal time and little inclination to spend it with her father. Ines’ latest posting is in Bucharest, a city adjusting to modern capitalism. The city now has a modern, generic mall where merchandise is too expensive for most citizens.

Winfried shows up in Bucharest disguised in an unruly wig and over-sized teeth. He tells his daughter’s work contacts that he is Toni Erdmann, a life coach at the same corporation as his daughter. Director Maren Ade who wrote the ingenious screenplay has said the teeth were inspired by a gag set she was given at the premiere of “Austin Powers”.

Sandra Huller and Peter Simonischek (center) in "Toni Erdmann"

Sandra Huller and Peter Simonischek (center) in “Toni Erdmann”

Ines is initially shocked at her father’s ruse but is forced to play along. She asks him “Are you trying to ruin me? … Have you gone insane?

As director and writer, Ade does a masterful job of combining eccentric comedy with an undercurrent of poignancy as the father tries to rebuild his relationship with his daughter. Ade said “Humor is his only weapon and he starts using it to the hilt.” The film is full of clever and unexpected twists. A highlight is a hilarious team-building exercise.

Peter Simonischek  and Sandra Huller in "Toni Erdmann"

Peter Simonischek and Sandra Huller in “Toni Erdmann”

Simonischek and Huller create distinctive characterizations and play well off of each other. Winifred/Toni’s outrageous behavior contrasts well with Ines’ humorlessness.

“Toni Erdmann” is a remarkable film that remains absorbing and sustains humor throughout a running time of over 2.5 hours.

Peter Simonischek at the Telluride Film Festival   (c) Ed Scheid

Peter Simonischek at the Telluride Film Festival (c) Ed Scheid

Volker Schlondorff had an insightful post-screening Q&A with Peter Simonischek. They mentioned as background that Germany and Romania have a consulting connection as Romania’s socialist economy moves into a capitalist system.

Simonischek said that Maren Ade writes a scene and gives the actors “lots of time to rehearse and make inventions”, adding to the singular style of the film. He added that in 56 shooting days, there was “not one bad day:”

Telluride 2014: Volker Schlondorff Tribute and “Diplomacy”

The Telluride Film Festival Tribute to German director Volker Schlondorff (“The Tin Drum”) was one of the most memorable in the 20 plus years I’ve been to Telluride. Schlondorff wept when presented with his Silver Medallion Tribute, saying it was given by friends. He added “Old men have emotion.”

Volker Schlondorff with his Silver Tribute Medallion at the Telluride Film Festival     (c) Ed Scheid

Volker Schlondorff with his Silver Tribute Medallion at the Telluride Film Festival (c) Ed Scheid

Schlondorff told fascinating anecdotes of his of his development into a celebrated international filmmaker. Born in 1939, Schlondorff grew up in Wiesbaden, Germany under US occupation and was exposed to American culture, including Hitchcock’s “Rear Window” and the films of Marlon Brando.

At age 16, he thought, “I can’t stand it here” (in Germany). He intended visiting France for 2 months, but stayed 10 years. He wanted to “escape from childhood”. He believes that because of his country’s history, “guilt befell” the Germans, “whether we wanted it or not.” What he wanted was to “become a little Frenchman.”

Schlondorff told a very amusing story about doing live spoken translations of German films at the Cinematheque in Paris. He described it as freely translated, making up probable lines In French. He said this was “how I learned to write dialog”.

Volker Schlondorff at his Tribute during the Telluride Film Festival     (c) Ed Scheid

Volker Schlondorff at his Tribute during the Telluride Film Festival (c) Ed Scheid

Schlondorff worked as assistant director on a “Zazie dans le Metro”, a 1960 film by his Parisian film school classmate Louis Malle. He also assisted directors Alain Resnais (“Last Year at Marienbad”) and Jean-Pierre Melville, before returning to Germany to direct his first feature, “Young Torless” in 1966. He described his 1976 “Coup de Grace”, about unrequited love during the Russian Civil War, as his “A Streetcar Named Desire”.

His most celebrated film “The Tin Drum” (1979), based on the Gunter Grass novel, received the Palme d’Or, the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival. There was difficulty in casting the lead role of a boy who stops growing as a protest. 90% of the film would be the presence of the boy, according to Schlondorff, who said he stayed with the film because of the insistence of the producer. In LIFE Magazine, Schlondorff read about the physical condition of young David Bennent who was cast In the film. David ended up being the son of Heinz Bennent who portrayed a lawyer in Schlondorff’s 1975 “The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum.”

American films made by Schlondorff include a 1985 TV version of “Death of a Salesman” with Dustin Hoffman and “The Handmaid’s Tale”(1990).

Schlondorff has dedicated his latest film “Diplomacy” to his friend Richard Holbrooke, deceased US diplomat whom the director said was ‘a privilege to know.” Schlondorff said he met Holbrooke through playwright John Guare. They were fellow theatergoers.

Schlondorff said “Diplomacy”, screened as part of his Tribute, shows that “words may be more powerful than weapons.” The film is also a tribute to his beloved Paris.

“Diplomacy” is set in August, 1944, when World War II is turning against the Nazis. Hitler orders General Dietrich von Choltitz (Niels Arestrup, “A Prophet”) to set bombs around Parisian monuments and bridges and to detonate them when the Germans retreat. The bombing of the bridges would cause severe flooding, leading to untold casualties. Von Choltitz has loyally followed orders before, reportedly even to killing Jewish civilians. The General gets an unexpected visit through a secret stairway from Swedish diplomat Raoul Nordling (Andre Dussollier, “Wild Grass”)

Niels Arestrup in "Diplomacy"

Niels Arestrup in “Diplomacy”

Schlondorff collaborated on the screenplay with Cyril Gely, based on Gely’s play. The film is an imagined meeting between the 2 historical characters who knew each other in the period of the film. “Diplomacy” shows a master filmmaker in peak form. Focusing on some engrossing conversations between the general and the diplomat, Schlondorff skillfully builds tension.

The clever Nordling desperately tries to save Paris, appealing to von Choltitz about all that Paris represents, even as the German capital of Berlin is in ruins. Hitler had threatened the families of his officers if orders weren’t followed, so von Choltitz considered his family as hostages to Hitler.

Niels Arestrup and Andre Dussollier in "Diplomacy"

Niels Arestrup and Andre Dussollier in “Diplomacy”

Even thought the fate of Paris is known, what makes the film fascinating is dramatizing what led to the outcome, and revealing what happened to von Choltitz, his family, and Nordling. Niels Arestrup and Andre Dussollier, 2 of Europe’s top actors give masterful performances of a remarkable battle of wills.