Posts Tagged ‘Klaus Lenz’

Mit mir nicht, Madam!

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!

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.

IMDB page.

Buy this film. 

Advertisements

He du!

While the rest of the world was undergoing huge cultural upheavals, East Germany’s leaders were busy battening down the hatches, shutting the windows, and stuffing cotton in their collective ears; anything to avoid acknowledging that somewhere between 1965 and 1971 the world had changed completely. The politicians in the GDR got a glimpse of these changes during the first half of the sixties, when the filmmakers at DEFA were pushing the boundaries with imaginative and daring films. Things were changing fast; too fast for the Soviet Union, and as the USSR went, the GDR followed. At the 11th Plenum in December of 1965, the authorities yanked the rug out from under the filmmakers at DEFA. After that, virtually any film that showed the slightest bit of criticism toward the “socialist way of life” was boxed up and shelved. For the most part, films became safer and less controversial. This wasn’t always a bad thing. It did help establish the development of genre pictures such as Chingachgook, The Great Snake and Hot Summer, but it also made it almost impossible for thoughtful, topical films to get produced. If filmmakers wanted to say something about the state of the things in the GDR, they had to do it in subtlest possible way. Some filmmakers took up the challenge. It was during this period that Egon Günther made Abschied (Farewell), a visually-stunning film based on Johannes R. Becher’s 1940 anti-war novel, but that was Egon Günther, a man who spent his entire career at DEFA pushing the boundaries. Few others were as willing to poke the bear.

Into this environment walked Rolf Römer, an actor who had already made a name for himself as Gojko Mitic’s sidekick in the popular Indianerfilme, Sons of the Great Bear, and Chingachgook, The Great Snake. Römer was given the greenlight to write and direct Hey You!, a film about the budding romance between Ellen Volkmann, a sophisticated, idealistic young teacher, and Frank Rothe, the rough-and-tumble foreman of a construction gang; a sort-of Lady and the Tramp story about the love between two people from opposite sides of the tracks.

The problem was that East Germany prided itself on not having these sorts of class divisions. It was written into its constitution. Nonetheless, the distinctions were there. Most people fell into one of three groups: the political elite, the intelligentsia, and the proletariat. Over time, these distinctions became more and more stratified. Everyone knew it, but nobody talked about it; at least not in public. Had Hey You! confronted this issue head on it would have ended up half-finished on a shelf next to Fräulein Schmetterling (Miss Butterfly) and Wenn du groß bist, lieber Adam (When You Grow Up, Dear Adam). Instead, by pretending these distinctions aren’t an issue, it emphasizes their existence.

Even this might have provoked the authorities, but Römer keeps the pressure off the GDR by focusing on the injustices elsewhere. In one of the film’s most memorable moments, Bahamian-Danish singer Etta Cameron sings “Jungle City USA,” a song about the difficulties of being black in America. Having spent much of her childhood in the U.S., Ms. Cameron certainly was in position to talk about this, but she could probably have said a few things about East Germany as well. She came to that country in 1967 for what was supposed to be a few days of work, but she carelessly threw away her exit visa. As you can imagine, not having your papers in a country that controlled its borders as assiduously as East Germany could be a recipe for disaster. She spent the next five years behind the Iron Curtain. While there, she appeared in two movies (Mit mir nicht Madam! and Hey You!), and sang in another (Osceola). When she finally got out, she headed to Denmark, where she spent the rest of her life. In her later years, she was a judge on Scenen er din, the Danish version of Star Search. She died in 2010.

If Römer was consciously emphasizing the stratification of East German society by pretending it didn’t exist, the message went over the heads of the film critics. The popular East German film reviewer, Renate Holland-Moritz, in her Kino-Eule column in Eulenspiegel magazine, thought that, although the film did touch on important subjects, it shied away from the bigger issues. The Catholic film magazine, Film-dienst, found the film mainly interesting as a time capsule, and there is some truth to this. As a chronicle of the aesthetics of 1970 East Germany it is hard to beat. Anyone interested in design will find in this film a treasure trove of kitchenware, furniture, architecture, clothing, and automobiles. The only other film that comes close is Römer’s 1976 film Hostess. In both films, Römer pegs the story to its point in time with his attention to the details. it is interesting to compare the two films. Only six years apart, and yet their aesthetics are completely different (it doesn’t hurt that one film is in color and the other is in black-and-white).

Römer got his start in movies as a character actor in the late fifties. He was slated for his big break with a starring role the 1965 film Born in ‘45, but the film was shelved after the 11th Plenum. Römer was a revolutionary at heart, and a socialist one at that. In a September 1965 interview for Junge Welt, the newspaper of the FDJ (East Germany’s government sponsored youth group), he said he was proud of his group at DEFA for their fight against “lazy mediocrity, cowardice, stupidity, the politically inflexible” (“gegen jedes faule Mittelmaß, gegen Feigheit, Dummheit, gegen das ewig Gestrige und ,dürfen wir das”). Two months later, the doors closed on this kind of thinking, but Römer kept the faith, subtly examining East German society in a series of comedies and seemingly lighthearted films.

As one of the people who protested the expatriation of Wolf Biermann, Römer didn’t make any friends in the government, but it was his script for the popular East German cop show, Polizeiruf 110 that brought his career to a standstill. After that, he did some voiceover work and eventually started appearing in TV movies, but his career was effectively over.

After the Wende, Römer found it impossible to get his scripts produced. His benevolent socialism was no longer the flavor of the month. As with other East German actors, he eventually started getting work in German television. He had a recurring role in the fourth season of Unser Lehrer Doktor Specht (coincidentally, Specht is Römer’s original last name). His last performance was in the popular cop show, Balko, but before the episode had aired, Römer died from injuries he sustained in an accident while tending to his garden plot in Berlin.

Hey You! stars the beautiful Annekathrin Bürger, Rolf Römer’s wife. Römer clearly loved this woman. The camera dwells often and lovingly on her face, as if it can’t get enough of her. He wasn’t the first, though. Ms. Bürger’s expressive face was well suited to movie close-ups. Frank Beyer also used it to good effect in Königskinder (Star-Crossed Lovers). Before becoming an actress, Ms. Bürger was working as a propmaster and an extra at the Stadttheater in Bernburg. There, director Gerhard Klein discovered her and cast her in A Berlin Romance (Eine Berliner Romanze), the second film in his Berlin trilogy. From then on, Ms. Bürger never stopped working, appearing in over twenty DEFA feature films, and even more TV movies. After the Wende, she continued to work, primarily in television. She was a regular on the Leipzig version of the popular German crime drama, Tatort, and on Die Stein, where she portrayed the lead character’s mother.

The song that Etta Cameron sings was written by Klaus Lenz, one of East Germany’s most respected jazz musicians. Lenz was closer to the cutting edge in jazz than any other performer in the GDR. He drew inspiration from several western sources, with a sound that mixed Hugh Masekela and the Modern Jazz Quartet during the sixties, and later the jazz-funk of Miles Davis and Weather Report. In 1977, after several successful performances on both sides of the Iron Curtain, Lenz moved to West Germany, but found it difficult to make a living as a musician in the west. He retired from music for several years, eventually returning to the stage in 2010.

A credit that you will see on every DEFA film is “Dramaturg.” On IMDB, this is often translated as “script editor,” but the job hews closer to the the theatrical meaning of dramaturge: the person who makes sure that the plays that are presented are in sync with the philosophy and perspective of the theater company. In East Germany, it was the Dramaturg’s job to make sure that the scripts didn’t contravene party politics; that it represented a truly East German perspective. Even this job could be dangerous. After the 11th Plenum, Chefdramaturg Klaus Wischenski was relieved of his duties thanks to the sudden shift in political climate. The Dramaturg on Hey You! was Wolfgang Ebeling. Ebeling also wrote or co-wrote many scripts for DEFA. He worked often with Römer, editing or co-writing the scripts for several movies that Römer either directed or starred in, including Chingachgook, The Great Snake, Mit mir nicht Madam!, Tecumseh, and Hostess. Although Ebeling got his start working on films during the fifties, but there is a gap in his work at DEFA. After working as the Dramaturg on Richard Groschopp’s 1962 political thriller, Freispruch mangels Beweises (Aquittal for Lack of Evidence), he didn’t work at DEFA again until 1967, when he came on-board as a screenwriter for Chingachgook. From then on he worked regularly on the films and television of East Germany, most often as a screenwriter. After the Wende, as with many other DEFA people, he worked infrequently, retiring from films after the 1991 crime comedy, Lord Hansi.

Hey You! is not the most daring of films, and it has that lack of focus that is common to the first efforts of many filmmakers. Nonetheless, it deserves watching. It is nicely photographed and well-acted. Above all, it is a perfect time capsule for the GDR in 1970. While watching it, you feel like you are there. You can almost smell the Rondo.

IMDB page for this film.

Buy this film.