Not to Me, Madam! (Mit mir nicht, Madam!) is what is referred to in German as a Verwechslungskomödie, and in English as a comedy of errors. The English term dates back to Shakespeare, and is taken from his play of the same name. Although originally a theatrical term, there are plenty of movies that fall into this category. The premise starts with two people who are mistaken for each other and the comedic adventures that result. The concept has turned up again and again in films, from Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator to the Joel and Ethan Cohn’s The Big Lebowski. Besides Chaplin, Buster Keaton and the Marx Brothers also used the concept frequently, and Alfred Hitchcock used it a few times for more dramatic purposes, most notably in North by Northwest.
Not to Me, Madam! starts on a plane to Yugoslavia. An East German journalist named Thomas and his photographer sidekick, Hasselhuhn are flying there to report on an international fashion show. They meet a priest on the plane who bears an uncanny resemblance to Thomas, and just to escalate the absurdity, Thomas and the priest are carrying identical briefcases. Unbeknownst to Thomas, the priest is really a notorious French fashion designer who is being tailed by a sexy English industrial spy named Mabel Patrick, as well as a bunch of bumbling Italians in a Jeep. It seems the French fashion designer is rumored to have plans for a new line of clothing that will make everything the British and the Italians are doing instantly obsolete. The Brits and the Italians will stop at nothing to find out what the designer’s up to—if only they can find the right guy.
The film was a co-production between DEFA and Yugoslavia’s Bosna Film Company, and was filmed along Yugoslavia’s Mediterranean coast. It is a beautiful location and the cinematography serves it well. The story even lapses into a travelogue at a couple points to take full advantage of the location. Besides the scenery, the film is also notable for its inclusion of American cars. It’s probably no accident that none of these cars perform particularly well. The Pontiac the good guys use to get to the airport requires a push, and the Chevy and Jeep driven by the villains aren’t much better.
One of the strangest and most striking things about this film is the way it jumps back and forth between color and black-and-white. It wasn’t the first film to do this. Lindsay Anderson had used the same technique a year before in his classic film, if…. In that movie, the choice to use black-and-white for certain scenes was either because of the lighting problems in the shots, or because they were running out of money, depending on which interview with Anderson you read. Lighting may have been a factor here as well, but the decision to use both black-and-white and color was a strange one and gives the film a slightly psychedelic quality. The extent to which the filmmakers were aware of the Anderson film is unknown. It does seem unlikely that the same technique would crop up independently in another film six months later.
Perhaps the jumps between film type has something to do with the fact that Not To Me, Madam! is directed by two budding directors—Roland Oehme and Lothar Warneke, both of whom went on to successful careers at DEFA. Oehme came to the studios after a stint in the army. He started his career as an assistant director for Ralf Kristen on the 1964 comedy, Mir nach, Canaillen! (Follow Me, Canaillen!). He got his first offer to direct a feature film shortly after this, but turned it down because he didn’t like the subject matter, a decision that probably helped keep him from joining the ranks of the blacklisted directors after the 11th Plenum. Not To Me, Madam! was his first feature film. His next feature film, Der Mann, der nach der Oma kam (The Man that came for Grandmother), was a hit and helped establish his career in East Germany. He was awarded the Film Critics’ of the GDR prize in 1979 and 1981 for Einfach Blumen aufs Dach (Ordinary Flowers on the Roof) and Asta, mein Engelchen (Asta, My Little Angel) respectively. After the Wende, he left films to work as the director of the Störtebeker Festival in Ralswiek on Rügen island. Since 2006, he has been writing an on-going series of plays known as the Müritz Saga that explore the history and folk tales of the region. A new episode is presented every year at the town’s open-air theater.
Oehme’s co-director, Lothar Warneke, was a former theology student turned director. Warneke had several films that were popular with East German filmgoers, including Die unverbesserliche Barbara (Incorrigible Barbara), Addio, piccola mia, and Blonder Tango; but it was his last DEFA film, Bear Ye One Another’s Burden, for which he is best remembered. As with many DEFA talents, his career as a filmmaker essentially ended with the Wende.
Not To Me, Madam! stars the husband and wife team of Rolf Römer and Annekathrin Bürger, both of whom we’ve discussed here previously (see Hey You! and Hostess). The duo had been appearing in films together since the late fifties, but this time the screenplay was co-written by Römer. A couple years later, he would take the next logical step and direct his wife in the pop period piece, Hey You! As with Römer’s film, Hostess, Annekathrin Bürger gets a chance here to demonstrate her skill with various languages and accents, playing the duplicitous Mabel Patrick.
Eva is played by the Polish actor, Krystyna Mikołajewska. Mikołajewska first came to the public’s attention in the Oscar-nominated, Polish film, Pharaoh. Like Jutta Hoffmann, Ms. Mikołajewska wasn’t a standard-issue beauty, but her dark hair and heavy-lidded eyes made her stand out from the models in the movie. As was often the case with actors who didn’t speak perfect German, Ms. Mikołajewska’s voice was dubbed. This time by fellow Pole, Zofia Słaboszowska,
The photographer, Hasselhuhn, is played by East Germany’s best-known comedian, Rolf Herricht. Herricht was the star of several of films, not to mention dozens of TV-movies and guest appearances. He died on stage while performing in Kiss Me Kate in 1981. [For more on Rolf Herricht, see Beloved White Mouse.]
The person who has the most fun in this film is Manfred Krug. Here, he gets to be East Germany’s answer to Peter Sellers, playing at least nine parts in the film, including Eve’s uncle, the hotel receptionist, an English-speaking woman tourist, a gypsy violinist, and a black man. Part of the fun of the film is seeing if you can spot Mr. Krug in each scene. Mostly his appearances are sight gags, and he plays several of them very broadly. [For more on Manfred Krug, see The Trace of Stones.]
Not To Me, Madam! features the first East German film appearance by Etta Cameron, a Danish/West Indian singer who came to East Germany to perform and got stuck there for five years when she lost her exit papers. Her part is small here and we don’t really get to see her perform. She would be used to better effect in Römer’s Hey You!
The jazzy score is by Klaus Lenz. Like fellow soundtrack composer Günther Fischer, Lenz comes from a jazz combo background rather than the classical backgrounds of Karl-Ernst Sasse and Wilhelm Neef. Lenz had already been the leader of various jazz groups when he got his first DEFA film score assignment, writing songs for Hochzeitsnacht im Regen (Wedding Night in the Rain), a musical starring heartthrob singer Frank Schöbel (of Hot Summer fame). Lenz wrote the scores for a few more DEFA films, but he was, first and foremost a jazz musician, so most of his work can be found on old Amiga records, and, more recently, on YouTube. After the Wende, Lenz had to essentially rebuild his career from scratch, playing cruise ships and local festivals. He finally got tired of this semi-anonymous grind and switched careers, moving into architectural restoration. He returned to playing music in 2010 and has regained some of his pre-Wende success.
Not to Me, Madam! was a popular film. It’s sunny Mediterranean locations no doubt helped. Even though, at its core, it is an espionage movie, the film stays well away from any heavy political messages. The Italians and the Brits are acting on capitalistic impulses, but that’s as far as it goes. Critics were less kind to the film than the public. They found it all a bit silly, but sometimes that’s exactly what people want from a movie.