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Before Schultze got the blues, he had the mean reds. The timid title character in writer-director Michael Schorr’s debut, Schultze Gets the Blues, is a lifelong salt miner and polka player in a bleak industrial German town. Forced into early retirement, Schultze silently drinks beer with his friends, eats dinner alone, and spends his afternoons polishing garden gnomes and padding around his modest home, unsure of whether to fluff a pillow or take a nap. Without work, his days are emptier, but it’s clear that life has never been a wild ride for Schultze.
Until one sleepless night, that is, when a fateful turn of the radio dial introduces our downcast hero to something new. (Apparently, Clear Channel hasn’t made the same inroads in Germany that it has stateside.) Schultze (Horst Krause) doesn’t know quite what to do when he hears spirited zydeco coming out of his aging wireless—right after a local station’s traffic-news segment reports, “There is no traffic news.” So he listens hard, occasionally glancing at the receiver as if it had just sprouted legs, then turns the radio off and takes a few steps toward his bed. But he doesn’t make it: Back to the zydeco and the quizzical looks, until Schultze finally waddles over to his accordion and begins to play. It’s the same old polka that he always practices, but he plays it faster and faster until it sounds like a joyful number that might as well have come from another world.
That world, of course, is Cajun country, and given that Krause looks like a cross between Drew Carey and John Popper, it’s hard to imagine a more appropriate actor to play a man newly obsessed with accordion-based blues. As Schultze, the actor is closely shorn and hugely waisted, always wearing a dapper hat, which he doffs in greeting or thanks more often than he actually speaks. This is a man with such a meek acceptance of the way things are that it seems unlikely he ever suspected there might be more to existence than work, polka, and beer.
This depiction of late-life searching has a thematic connection to About Schmidt, and Krause’s resemblance to Carey isn’t the only thing the movie has in common with The Drew Carey Show. If Cleveland moved to Germany and the Carey gang were heading toward retirement, they’d seem a lot like Schultze and best buds Jürgen (Harald Warmbrunn) and Manfred (Karl Fred Müller). Schorr finds humor in the soul-crushing dullness of lower-middle-class life, from Jürgen’s ridiculously hostile admonishment of a lawn-mowing neighbor (after he carefully removes a plant from the window he needs to open) to the friends’ shocked response to their watering hole’s new barmaid, who dances on tables and doles out the pints they’re used to receiving from some old coot. Though they eventually warm up to her, at first the lass is more change than the trio can handle. The same-old is held in such regard in Schultze’s sleepy village that he actually consults his doctor when the strange sound that came out of his radio gets under his skin. “A change in musical taste is not an illness,” the doc has to tell him.
For a film about music, Schultze Gets the Blues is oddly quiet—which feels appropriate in, say, dialogue-free scenes between longtime friends, but awkward the few times Schultze is bold enough to explore his new style in front of an audience at the local nursing home or with his music club. (With responses ranging from silence to polite applause to accusations of his playing “bloody nigger music,” neither performance goes over very well.) The only soundtrack to Schultze’s accordion-free activities is his heavy breathing, which sounds like nothing so much as a series of sighs.
The leisurely, episodic style that Schorr employs to summarize Schultze’s pre-zydeco life—a beer here, a chess game there, more beer later—feels like sloppiness in the movie’s second half, which finds Schultze in the United States, sent by his club to represent it in their Texas sister city’s music festival. Though Schultze barely speaks English, he takes the opportunity to explore the South, drifting from a crab-eating session on a houseboat to a meeting with a bayou cop named Capt. Kirk. But because Schultze’s demeanor remains largely unchanged—he’s too intimidated to play at the festival, and he’s sheepish around anyone who tries to befriend him—it’s difficult to ascertain whether this trip is a life-affirming move or a dismal reminder that he should have never flown the coop.
Schorr never explains, either, exactly where Schultze goes or how he manages to obtain the dilapidated houseboat he uses to get there. Instead, the film becomes more defiantly picturesque, relying on humid waterfront atmospheres and showcasing the American equivalent of Schultze’s peers. Schorr’s lens is too often trained in on a table of old men playing poker or a few well-lined couples dancing—some looking directly at the camera—at a honky-tonk. As beautifully composed as some of these shots are, they do little more than turn Schultze Gets the Blues into a travelogue. Schultze’s story may not be a very exciting one, but it’s not until he’s pushed to its side that the telling becomes a bore.CP