Female Director Spotlight: Maren Ade and the Discreet Charm of (Emotional) Nudity

As Megan has been off at BFI Flare, Kareem has kindly taken over the spotlight this month! Read on to hear his thoughts on the wonderful Maren Ade. 

It’s a moment of overwhelming helplessness; Ines, an emotionally drained corporate consultant (and human being), lies on a couch of a Bucharestian club. Her body language is equal to, how Germans would say, “einem Schluck Wasser” (a gulp of water) and as the techno remix of “Safe and Sound” enters a phase of temporary tranquility before the beat drops, her eyes well up with tears as the words “I could lift you up” inhabit the entire room for a second – almost like a whispered promise of comfort, directly addressed to her. She looks over at Toni Erdmann, a wigged character with fake teeth, invented by her desperate father. She sees how helpless he himself is – the tears are an expression of the powerlessness against the emotional chasm between them. She knows how hard he tries, despite his feeling of impotence – maybe because he has no one else to turn to at this point. They are both deeply lonely people, torn apart by time, space and societal conventions of emotional self-oppression.

Toni Erdmann is a film about many things, but like German auteur Maren Ade’s entire body of work, especially about how disconnected we can be from each other and ourselves, and thus how lonely.

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A new voice:

Maren Ade started with film production and applied media management at the HFF Munich, before she studied film directing. This set-up was the basis of the founding of Komplizen Film, a production company she established with fellow student Janine Jackowski, and which is today perhaps the most daring german arthouse production company, involved in films like Sebastian Lelio’s academy award winning Una Mujar Fantastica, Valeska Griesebach’s Western, Ulrich Köhler’s Schlafkrankheit, Miguel Gomes acclaimed Arabian Nights trilogy and of course – Maren Ade’s three existing feature films.

In 2003, Ade produced her feature debut and graduate film Der Wald vor lauter Bäumen, which went on a highly successful festival run, including the win of the Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival in 2005. From then on, she gathered a firm spot among the most looked-out-for German filmmakers. Her sophomore feature Alle Anderen premiered in the competition of the 2009 Berlinale and won the Grand Jury Prize, as well as the Best Actress award for Birgit Minichmayr. Her most recent film, the beforementioned Toni Erdmann, got invited to the Cannes Film Festival competition in 2016 and transformed into a surprise darling among both audiences and critics worldwide.

First Contact:

The premiere of Toni Erdmann was the first time I actively heard about Maren Ade, and since my knowledge of contemporary German film was very superficial back then, I decided to see Alle Anderen after hearing the rave reviews about Toni Erdmann from Cannes.

The film, a complex dissection of couple dynamics and self-reflection, was unlike anything I had ever seen before – something that dared to be uncomfortable, and to delve unashamedly into everything we usually don’t want to talk about. I can’t say that I was expecting any of what the film gave me, but I was stunned by the way Ade makes the viewer feel like an unwanted spectator. There was an instant recognition, of how Alle Anderen captured the spaces in-between and after, the small gestures and feelings usually rushed over or cut off in conventional attempts at filmmaking, which are more firmly chained to the focus of narrative efficiency in a traditional sense. She clearly portrays how humans are defined by their circumstances and how their interactions are, in their very roots, attempts at trying to make others understand them. Communication is a mean to connect, which is crucial for human survival. Humans can sustain themselves physically in theory, but psychologically we are inhabited by the need to connect. We ache for another individual close to us, that doesn’t come to conclusions that we see as contradicting to our true nature.

Directing life as a nude party:

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Sandra Hüller in ‘Toni Erdmann’ (2016). © 2016 The Match Factory

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All these elements were present in Alle Anderen, which also showcases Ade’s directorial recurring style. Her films often look plain at first, until you realize that they are very well shot in their attention-rejecting intention. She furtherly reaches a documentary-esque realism through combining extremely naturalist dialogue and immensely well-rehearsed and complementary actors, who are outstanding every single time – especially Birgit Minichmayr, Sandra Hüller and Eva Löbau deliver feats, that easily earn them a place in the pantheon of great European acting performances.

Ade relays a lot on her actors, to reach a completely naturalist communication, specifically on a non-verbal level between her characters. They are highly complex in their behavior, and the viewer is challenged to empathize, through the realization, that he has something in common with them. That is something that can be hard to admit, since that realization is often an uncomfortable one in our society’s self-perception.

 

Ade pulls all focus towards the narrative, visually, but also audibly. Her use of music is mostly diegetic, but in a way that is staggering in its narrative implications. The most recognizable scene in Toni Erdmann are not only all-time great four minutes of acting; Sandra Hüller’s rendition of Whitney Houston’s Greatest Love of All, is a moment that drafts the entire emotional spectrum of the character’s inside onto the outside, not by exposition, but by combining the lyricism of self-love with the psychological restrictions that hinder the character from achieving exactly that. What happens, is an earth shattering live broadcast of a person breaking apart. It’s one of the most astonishing moments in contemporary cinema and the center of the films system vs. individual theme.

Let’s talk about Germany:

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Maren Ade and Peter Simonischek on the set of ‘Toni Erdmann’ (2016).

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As someone who is German, I also need to mention that Maren Ade is someone who has a very firm grasp on, what the implications of German societal and cultural conventions are. She is deeply universal in her humanism, but the films are German through and through. That is especially visible in Toni Erdmann, a film that deconstructs humor into his humanist components and shows the desperation lurking beneath it. She portrays the reason German humor has the reputation of being awkward on open display, and subverts expectations by not trying to be any less “German”. In the contrary, she fully cranks that element up, letting it culminate into the film’s iconic nude party, which is a moment engaging the viewer on every single level, whether allegorically, humorously or dramatically. This deeply reflected, yet unapologetic attempt at German culture, manages to work out something that is perhaps close to the truth behind certain attitudes or patterns of behavior.

Maren Ade’s filmography one by one:

DER WALD VOR LAUTER BÄUMEN (2003):

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Eva Löbau in ‘Der Wald vor lauter Bäumen’ (2003). © 2003 Komplizen Film

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Maren Ade’s graduate film is a masterpiece about neediness. It arguably captures the feeling of being desperate for human interaction better than any other film. There is true, unfiltered distress in Eva Löbau’s performance that is not easy to shake and at times hard to watch. But in the end, we are rewarded with a story that truly understand how it feels to be alone.

Sadly, it is plagued by a very limited DVD/VOD release, the reason why there is barely any knowledge about it among the film community outside of Germany.


 

ALLE ANDEREN (2009):

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Birgit Minichmayr and Lars Eidinger in ‘Alle Anderen’ (2009). © 2009 Komplizen Film

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A film about relationships and the societal conceptions and expectations surrounding them. It’s a film that is brimming of summer feelings, and a couple played by Birgit Minichmayr and Lars Eidinger is permanently questioning their relationship and what latter even means or should be. It’s a film that hurts a lot, but a film that offers a much more complex and sober perspective on love than mostly portrayed in cinema, but avoids at the same time coming off cold or spiritless.


 

TONI ERDMANN (2016):

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Peter Simonischek in ‘Toni Erdmann’ (2016). © 2016 The Match Factory

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A layered, complex postmodern tragedy that grasps the human condition inside of capitalist, western society more accurate than anything else. There is something completely unique about its attempt to humor as a theme and its shaggy charme. Every of its characteristics, is incorporated back into the narrative again and makes it some sort of rare, completely whole and self-contained piece of art. Its reflections about happiness are wise and bittersweet, but it also recognizes that there aren’t and never will be easy answers. We just need to keep going and hope for the best.


 

Maren Ade digs and digs everywhere, until she reaches the humanist roots of our entire world. And she truly deserves so much more recognition for it.

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