A review of Schultze Gets the Blues

Reviewed by Daniel Garrett

Schultze Gets the Blues (2003)
Directed by Michael Schorr
MPAA: Rated PG for mild language.
Runtime: 114 min / Argentina:114 min (Mar del Plata Film Festival)
Country: Germany

Schultze Gets the Blues is a German film about a salt mine worker and polka-playing accordionist who retires, and during a sleepless night discovers on the radio Louisiana’s zydeco music—and it changes his life. The accordionist, played by Horst Krause, has apparently lived a regimented and simple life of work and friends; and he, Schultze, begins now to experiment with music and America’s southern food. The change he encounters brings him closer to some people in his small German community and alienates others from him. His music club and friends sponsor his participation in a music festival in Texas, to which he goes, and while visiting Texas and Louisiana, he explores the land, waters, clubs, food, and people of the American south. The German accordionist, a man with an aging baby face and a beer belly, is given a warm reception despite the language barriers (gestures and hospitality suffice for communication). It is interesting to see the United States from a stranger’s eyes, interesting to see how there is culture here that is experienced not as commercial and overpowering but as charming, joyous, and mysterious. Schultze Gets the Blues,written and directed by Michael Schorr, is carefully made but plain-looking (the production designer is Natascha Tagwerk, the cinematographer Axel Schneppat). Schultze Gets the Blues gives us locations and settings that seem utterly real, and sometimes they are filmed from angles and planes that offer the most interesting view—of sunset, of rushing water, of friends together, of a man’s isolation. In Germany, the landscapes include a mountain, hills, and lawns decorated with gnomes; and in America, there are lakes and bayous, a beach and a country road. Schultze Gets the Blues arrives on these shores virtually unannounced; and so the pleasure one gets from it is unexpected and one is quietly grateful. Its comedy is born of the quotidian details of life, eccentric personality, sudden surges of genuine feeling, friendship, bemusement, unfamiliarity with strange customs, and the dramatized observation that sometimes things do fall well into place.

Schultze Gets the Blues begins with three old men on bicycles, miners on their way to work, waiting at a train crossing for the barrier to lift, so they can continue. We see the men at work among others, and in a short time there is a small party—with singing and odd gifts for the three who are retiring. Each gets a piece of salt rock under which an electric light has been set—and then the three men are retired. They drink beer, play chess, and fish. Two of them have wives; the musician Schultze does not. It is clear that the musician and his friends are bored. One of them is thinking of starting another career. The musician has his polka music—though it’s clear that despite the long tradition of music (his father also played) he is bored. It’s rather sad to see that music has become part of a social ritual involving community and pride but very little pleasure. When two of the men, the musician’s fellow retirees (played by Harald Warmbrunn and Karl-Fred Muller), argue over a game of chess, one wonders if it is because of different styles, a misunderstanding, or just a need for drama.

When the musician Schultze hears zydeco music on the radio one night, he turns off the radio and walks away, but he returns to the radio for another listen—and he picks up his accordion and begins to play first slowly then with speed—and it is a happy sound. Zydeco is a Creole (African/French) syncopated dance music native to Louisiana; and one is surprised that very few of the people Schultze plays the music for can hear its appeal. He visits an old woman in a retirement home (I think this was his mother, who may have been senile) and befriends one of the other women there—for a moment it looks as if a romance might bloom, but that doesn’t happen. The musician plays for some of the people in the home and most of them have no response to the music. The rhythms and melodies may be too different. When he plays the music for a gathering of his music club, one of the young men calls the music “nigger music.” (This seems a rejection of the unknown, an affirmation of local tradition, and, most unfortunately, German racism.)

When the musician’s music club and friends give him the ticket to travel to the land where zydeco was born, it seems a reward not only for what Schultze has meant to them all these years, but support for his willingness to try something new. It is as if he is doing it for them as much as himself. His visit to the American south is, first, to a place in which he finds people who seem to be of direct East European descent (German, Czech). Then he begins to meet the locals—a Creole woman, a club of French-accented Cajuns playing dominoes, a group of elderly dancers (these scenes seemed documentary: with people staring into the camera), and an African-American woman and her daughter who feed him shrimp, fish, and crabs (making some of us in the late night audience a little envious). Schultze gets to hear a live zydeco band. Schultze Gets the Blues is not a political view of the country, but a cultural view, an intimate one: a very human look, one that many Americans do not get. It is incomplete (for instance, we see few young people—if we had seen more of them, especially more young men, there might have been more hostility). I don’t think this is a great film or a profound one: but it seems and feels true. It says that it’s never too late to experience life, and never too late to change.

About the Reviewer: Daniel Garrett, born in Louisiana and a longtime resident of New York, is a graduate of the New School for Social Research. His work has appeared in The African, AIM/America’s Intercultural Magazine, AllAboutJazz.com, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black American Literature Forum, Changing Men, The City Sun, Frictionmagazine.com, The Humanist, Hyphen, Identity Theory.com, Illuminations, Muse-Apprentice-Guild.com, Option, PopMatters.com, Red River Review, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, TechnologyReports.net, 24FramesPerSecond.com, UnlikelyStories.org, and World Literature Today.