2005 must be the year of leisurely paced gems — movies that move like molasses but pack an unforgettable emotional wallop. There was Scotland’s Dear Frankie, the American Off the Map, and now there’s Germany’s recent box-office champ, Schultze Gets the Blues. This simple, unadorned film is the droll, gently told tale of a German accordion player who journeys into the Louisiana bayous to find the soul of zydeco music. No special effects, no belly laughs, no tears streaming down your face. Just a meticulously detailed, subtle story about an ordinary man that’s achingly true to real life. The movie has a poignant message: A man is never too old to change his life, but he might be too old to change it for very long.
Schultze (Horst Krause) works in the salt mines, literally, in a cavernous underground purgatory in Saxon-Anhalt, Germany, near the river Saale. Above ground, the weather is drab and dreary, just like the lives of the townspeople. Making matters worse, Schultze and two co-workers are forced into early retirement. While Jurgen (Harald Warmbrunn) and Manfred (Karl Fred Muller) have families to occupy their long hours, Schultze is unmarried and childless. Vivacious Frau Lorant (Rosemarie Diebel) tries to get him to take her to the local casino, but Schultze doesn’t understand that the enticements of life are sometimes offered only in slivers — and if you don’t take a bite, even a tiny one, the moment will pass forever.
One day Schultze discovers zydeco music on the radio. Entranced by the exotic sound, he begins to imitate it, turning his standard polka fare into daring flights of keyboard-and-bellows magic. Like a mythical Siren, the music beckons Schultze, tiny step by tiny step. His new musical forays, however, don’t sit well with most of the townspeople, who call it “bloody jungle music.” But Schultze’s loyal friends send him to America, to New Braunfels, Texas, to represent them in their sister city’s music festival.
Texas turns out to be just as dreary as Germany and sadly unwelcoming, especially since Schultze speaks not a world of English. His friends back home imagine that he is becoming a wildly successful polka player with a big recording contract, but Schultze, discouraged and lonely, never even plays in the festival. Being so close to the source of his beloved zydeco, he decides to leave Texas and head toward Cajun country. He buys a funky blue houseboat, puts a pint-sized garden gnome in the window for good luck and putters his way down the river into the bayous. There he meets a woman cooking crabs (Anne V. Angelle), who, along with her friend and daughter, takes Schultze out for a night of zydeco dancing. The people are in tune with the music — sunny, welcoming and wildly alive. At long last, for the briefest moment, Schultze finds the music and the people he was looking for.
Schultze Gets the Blues is so understated that it might seem plodding, especially to American audiences who are used to faster-paced movies, but the low-key tempo of the film is exactly its point. The changes in Schultze’s outlook happen as they do in real life — slowly, with three steps forward, two steps back, and no crescendo of stringed instruments. In the end, Schultze’s adventure is celebrated not so much by him, but by the friends he left behind. In first-time director/writer Michael Dorr’s patient and masterful hand, a celebration of life occurs, but not in the Hollywood way. Rated PG for mild language.
— reviewed by Marci Miller