Best foreign-language film traditionally is one of the hardest Oscar categories to handicap, but if there is a frontrunner this year, it is Maren Ade's oddball dramedy Toni Erdmann. The best reviewed film out of Cannes, where it surprisingly was snubbed by the jury, this tale of a father and daughter - he's a tireless practical joker, she's a driven corporate professional - was a box-office hit at home in Germany, where it has grossed nearly $5 million, and the foreign-language success story of the year.
It swept the European Film Awards, winning best film, best director, best screenplay and best actor awards for stars Peter Simonischek and Sandra Huller. And Paramount has reportedly acquired English-language remake rights for the film, with Jack Nicholson and Kristen Wiig said to be attached to star as the father and daughter.
It remains to be seen if the U.S. studio version of Toni Erdmann can match the magic of the original, which manages to be both tightly controlled and seemingly spontaneous. Much of that is due to Ade's process as a director. She is notorious for spending years in development and weeks in rehearsals preparing with her actors. The shoot itself involved take after take, with Ade often exhausting her stars in her quest for perfection.
"After a take, she says, 'Thank you. Again.' Then the next and 'Thank you. Again.' Over and over again," says Simonischek. "She doesn't tell you what to do, but is always watching to find something real happening between the actors."
The result - 120 hours of material chopped down to the film's final 162-minute running time - is a movie that feels improvised but is impeccably planned.
"Above all, I enjoy on-set rehearsals," says Ade. "When we rehearsed the film's naked party scene, everyone was waiting so Sandra could do a run-through of the whole sequence in one go. We were waiting on Gerald [Thomas Loibl] who was coming late from the airport. We'd already started rehearsing when he arrived, so Sandra opened the door for him naked, and we filmed it. We knew right away that was exactly the expression we needed to capture when we shot the scene."
Simonischek recalls a similar experience when he and Huller first arrived in Romania for the film's location shoot there. Ade picked them up in a limousine dressed like a go-go girl.
"She was showing us what normal people are like when they put on a costume and perform, how uncomfortable they are, how you can see the real person behind the performance," says Simonischek. "Our characters both do that, my character puts on a wig and fake teeth and pretends to be this 'life coach' named Toni Erdmann. Maren was reminding us that we couldn't be actors when we put on roles, that you had to see the real person underneath."
The success of Toni Erdmann has catapulted Ade into the international spotlight, but the 40-year-old filmmaker has kept her cool so far.
While she says she "could imagine" shooting a film in English and already is fielding offers, she stills feels most at home in Germany and in the German language. "The films I do have so much to do with me as a person and with the language I speak," she says. "It's where I feel most comfortable and where I want to stay."
This story first appeared in a February standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.