Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Schultze Gets the Blues

(Germany, 2003)

(SPOILER WARNING) This is a German film, but apparently doesn’t have a title in German. Schultze and two friends are retired from working in a salt mine. (Which isn’t as bad as it sounds; I’ve been in a salt mine, in Grand Saline, Texas, and it’s kind of neat.) They don’t have anything to do with themselves. Schultze is the most clueless of them all. He isn’t married, his mother is senile in a nursing home. He hardly ever speaks, never shows any emotion. All he can do is play the accordion, and all he knows how to play is polkas. Then he hears some Zydeco music on the radio, begins experimenting, and comes up with something that might be called Prussian Zydeco. Just the same little ditty he plays over and over. He performs it at a music festival in his town, to no enthusiasm at all. They want the old oom-pah-pah. Then his friends decide to send him to a festival in their “sister city,” New Braunfels, Texas, which is sort of like our Danish Solvang in California, only German. It might as well be Mars. The people are friendly, but when he shows up with his squeezebox he sees it’s the same old oom-pah-pah, plus yodeling. He doesn’t play.

He buys a little fishing boat and sets out down the Gaudalupe river and down the Intercoastal Canal for Zydeco country. He has minor adventures along the way. He speaks so little English that he barely knows where he is and seldom understands what people are saying to him. But they are friendly. He hears some real Cajun music. He dies. Back in Germany, they give him a jazz funeral. The German oom-pah-pah band is horrible, trying to play Zydeco, but they’re trying.

What never happens is what I had sort of expected. He doesn’t ever learn to play with anything like soul. In fact, he never plays for anyone in America except the guy in the next room in the motel, who bangs on the wall to make him stop. He’s not “discovered.” He doesn’t find love. But everything he sees and hears is brand new to him, and you get the feeling that he hasn’t seen anything new since he went down in the salt mines as a young man. There are worse ways for your life to end.

This is a first feature by Michael Schorr, and was a huge hit in Germany. It reminded me of the films of Jim Jarmusch, where not much happens but the daily lives of some not-too-bright people who you grow to like. It started out a tad too slow, too many shots that lingered a little too long, but pretty soon I didn’t care. I really grew to like Schultze. He is such a simple, lonely, friendly, shy guy, and all he has in the world is his music, which he isn’t even good at. But I’d buy the guy a beer.