Schultze Gets the Blues

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SCHULTZE (Schmidt?) GETS THE BLUES [!!] Will Americans Get Them, too?

Feb 5, 2005 (Updated Aug 31, 2005)
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Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Superbly naturalistic performance by Horst Krause. Quirky, timeless but relevant story. Gorgeous framing and editing.

Cons:It stretches out like the plains of Sachsen-Anhalt; meanders like a Louisiana Delta stream.

The Bottom Line: Germany's eccentric, sad, funny SCHULTZE GETS THE BLUES might become a cult film for truths it so specifically and universally reveals to us, whether German, American or maybe Martian.


SCHULTZE gets the blues!!

In our still patriarchal world, is Schultze -- a German bachelor retiree who leaves the backwaters of East Germany for the ignored bayous of Louisiana -- an ultimate Faust? Why does he dress up as Mephistopheles at the costume party? Or is he only a lonely old victim, a figure of gentle fun, seeking a parallel life he never lived, in a far place?

Conceivably, he is all three figures. He is all such men. A modern Everyman (at least the future 99% of us).

For what do great modern industrial nations do when their workforce's age? When the older industries themselves become obsolescent? Leading the way, America, which puritanically eschews membership in the "Over the Hill Club," has hellbently fragmented her once great heavy industries, laid off our old duffers, and plans to trash future pension funds for fraudulent privatization schemes -- in order that our machiavellian Corporatists may trade Coca-Cola, Disney Worlds, and electronic games for Oil on the Markets of the New World Order. [Or if that doesn't work, consummate the Thousand Year (um, Fourth) Reich, by military means?] In a tragicomic microcosm of the process, SCHULTZE GETS THE BLUES shows us, in a film which will be foolishly compared to Alexander Payne's ABOUT SCHMIDT, how one overage German burger reacts to how his economically pressured society has begun handling the problem.

It is rather a comment on reversal of roles: German c*m American.

---------------

Unlike Great Plains' Insurance Man Schmidt (wiry Jack Nicholson, you may remember), Schultze (Horst Krause) is a shy middle-aged great porker of a manual laborer, who works literally in the salt mines of the former East Germany (Sachsen-Anhalt [Saxony] in what used to be the DDR). We meet him while he pedals his rickety bicycle across the bleak, flat plains which stretch off into Poland. [But for the lack of cars, it might be Payne's Nebraska or John Ford's Oklahoma.] He joins two longtime friends, Jurgen (Harald Warmbrunn) and Manfred (Karl Fred Muller), at a railway crossing, where an annoyed Schiller-reading young train guard (Wolfgang Boos) does not think them important enough to raise the bar, no matter how often they ring their little bells.

Schultze, Jurgen, and Manfred, three trolls on a blighted landscape, former heroes of an old proletarian order, are coming to work late because they have been persuaded (forced?) into early retirement from digging salt. They go down in the lift for a last time, sign their pension papers, and are honored at a small ceremony. Glasses of schnapps are raised, and each man receives as his retirement present a similar lamp (made of a large salt crystal). Then, they go to their local hofbrau, where they . . . well -- do what they've always done -- drink schooners of beer (seasoned with licks from their salt lamps), and of course, chug more schnapps.

In the days which follow, we learn through quiet observation a lot about the three pals. Whereas Schultze is a lifelong bachelor in their town, and a master accordionist (like his father before him), Jurgen and Manfred are both ordinary married men. The wife of Jurgen (Ursula Schucht), the eldest of the men, is satisfied with the retirement arrangement, but Manfred's wife (Hannelore Schubert), a younger woman, whose teenage son desires to go on the World Motor-Cross Circuit, immediately has the want-ads out to put her husband back to work. Using Friend Shutze's solitude as an excuse, the trio escapes to the railway bridge for days of fishing, and lunches at . . . let us say, "the good place."

More beer and schnapps (ominously interrupted by the arrival of an electronic game machine), polite glances at the barmaid, more attempts to catch the attention of the young gatekeeper at the rail crossing -- "The Furies close at last," he mutters -- and sporadic wistful staring through a fence at the entrance to the ancient mineshaft.

For variety, they go play chess at their well-organized workers club, but Manfred, a Saxon, angrily knocks over the chessboard when the Prussian Jurgen imposes his own rules. They both storm away, leaving Schultze to pick up the pieces.

Gradually, we begin to concentrate on Schultze's stratagems to stave off the boredom of retirement. He faithfully visits his mother, who suffers from Alzheimer's Disease, in a rest home. But there, he happens to meet a newcomer, the vigorously stylish, redheaded Frau Lorant, who is proud of her Alsatian heritage. She pronounces her name like a Parisienne, and thinks the home staff are "fascists." She immediately sizes the doughty Schultze up as a catch, possibly a ticket out of the place, and introduces him to an exotic new liquor, Bushmill's Irish Whiskey:

"Prost!"

"No, no," she admonishes him, demonstrating. "Take your time, Herr Schultze. Sip. Sip."

Schultze, for the first time in ages, has learned something new.

The potential match looks promising.

Why it is not, you must find out for yourself, but it is just one example of a default search for variety which Schultze undertakes.

-----------------

Schultze Got the BLUES.

He is surrounded by people who never have exercised their dreams, perchance never have had many. [His doctor wanted to be a Grand Opera singer.] He is soon back to his pattern of watering his garden (washing humorous troll replicas of his pals); wolfing large wienerschnitzels, washed down by bottles of beer; practicing his father's accordion arrangements; napping and listening to the radio. One night, weary of the radio traffic reports [". . . There is no Traffic."], angered by government public service warnings to miners on the symptoms of lung disease, he tools around the dial and encounters an accordion style to which he has heretofore paid no attention: Zydeco music from America's Deep South. At first, he snaps this barbarity off, but after lying down a few moments, he comes back to it.

Schultze is soon imposing variations of the infectious melody he heard onto his traditional German polka themes. The gingerly awakened adventurer is inspired further by a new barmaid at the Appointed Place who hates that newly installed electronic game machine, and who dances a mean Flamenco on the tables of the hofbrau. He is so taken with Cajun music that he experiments on his comrades by cooking them [a first] Louisiana-style cuisine, and insists he play his Zydeco piece at the 50th Anniversary observance of the town's local music club. His friends find Jambalaya an encouragement to guzzle more lager, but consternation is the result at the concert. Half the audience can't understand Schultze's composition; loyal friends like Jurgen, Manfred and their wives defend his choice; but several younger members denounce Schultze for polluting their common musical heritage with "N*gger Music!"

A near fight ensues.

A decision by the Club to send Schultze as their "musical representative" to a German Wursfest in Southeastern Texas is partly, perhaps, to remove him as a threat to the purity and tranquility of their Saxon accordion canon.

And so our hero, unprepared though he is, soon finds himself in the new Germany of Texas.

-----------------

I'll also let you discover (fully, that is) what Schultze learns in the Great American Southwest.

HINTS:

-- that German Texas is no more ready than his home town for Zydeco.

-- that the German yodeling experience is not improved through karaoke.

-- that traditional German music in Texas is produced by "oompah" groups.

-- that a black woman, Josephine (Alozia St. Julien), in a hot tub outside a Texas motel might accept his Napoleon in a skimpy new bathing suit, more than a fraulein would back home.

-- that a man who grew up on the DDR's "Auferstanden aus Ruinen" still finds it strange and foreign to his ear and eye when German Texans stand for "Deutchland ueber Alles."

-----------------

How Schultze wakes to find himself on a blue boat floating on peregrinating streams toward the Gulf of Mexico --

How Schultze is rescued by Captain Kirk (Kirk Guidry) --

How Schultze steers his craft for open water in a challenge to a giant super tanker --

How a beached Schultze is befriended, refueled (literally and figuratively) and re-floated by a Czech band, who take him at first for a Russian --

How Shultze GETS the Blues when he encounters the real thing on the blue houseboat of a black woman, Aretha (Anne V. Angelle) and her daughter, Shareen (Danielle Krause?!), in a Louisiana bayou --

. . . There are many revelations in SCHULTZE GETS THE BLUES!

-----------------

In fact, on its placid voyage, SCHULTZE GETS THE BLUES becomes a little masterpiece. It tells a story very relevant to German life but also to our own. That story is a tragedy but a comic one, foreshadowed in its opening moments. Most of our humorous reactions come in our own delayed awareness of the condition humane, as we, too, GET the blues.

The World of Schultze is a circumscribed one, in which the German obsolescent miner is a gentle misfit, but when he is sent to the "free world" of German Texas, he finds that, disoriented, surrounded by a familiar seeming milieux, the nuances do not ring true, and outside that milieux he is able to say little but "hello" and "thank you." He is soon adrift on a strange river, from which only "the kindness of strangers" and the unfamiliar music he found on the radio can bring him home.

------------------

Writer/Director Michael Schorr, himself a modest, self-deprecating man of about 40, primarily a still photographer and documentarian, worked on the concept of SCHULTZE GETS THE BLUES for over ten years. He and cinematographer Axel Schneppat, with the help of Editor Tina Hillmann, have created a unique photographic style for the picture.

The frame is everything: In one shot, for example, Schorr and Schneppat catch a Texas motel, Schultze and the friendly Josephine relaxing in that hot tub, and the freeway on-ramps buzzing with trucks and cars. In another, one of a line of dark motel windows is suddenly lit, emphasizing Schultze's solitary head, in all its loneliness. In still another, a startled, surprised, slightly cowed Schultze tries to explain to an out-of-frame Coast Guard Captain Kirk why his little blue boat is stuck in a tidal basin.

Visual metaphors are dwelled upon: the underused wind-electric farms of Saxony, an old scarred white enameled pot in the mine's coffee room, duplex doors and duplex garages in the old Communist housing developments. We learn to know Schultze's countryside, his home, as well as we come to see dusty Texas bars, with their daily closed domino games; forlorn Gulf harbors in waiting for tankers; and Delta watering holes, where the dancers have not learned to avoid looking at the camera. We see a Great Plains-like part of Germany and a reach of the American Southland, in ways we have seldom seen either before.

We come to know every one of its 114 minutes; yet we never quite know what is coming next; and at the end, we are surprised that so much time has passed.

Borrowing the simplest of devices, Schorr's team used a few lead actors, picked up amateurs and bystanders along the way. They settled into the depressed German mining regions they knew, near the Polish and Czech borders; and with equal confidence, they walked into places in Texas and Louisiana, and just asked the people present if they would like to be in a movie -- then shot their script against the resulting action. It works marvelously well.

As few movies do these days, SCHULTZE GETS THE BLUES functions, on several levels, without calling undue attention to itself: the semi-documentary, the travelogue, the sociological, the comic, the tragic, the existential.

Though Director Schorr claimed at our Q & A and following reception that he was unaware of any homages in his film, he must have, then, subconsciously channeled the work of Bergman, Percy Adlon (ROSALIE GOES SHOPPING, 1989) -- not to mention that of John Huston and John Ford.

-------------------

It is not by accident that Schultze makes some gentle bargains; nor that he dresses like *Mephistopheles at that yearly costume party; nor that he comes across the horizon like the wanderer which he is, showing the way for all of those who will follow him in these early years of the 21st Century.

Please try to find SCHULTZE GETS THE BLUES when Paramount Classics opens it in limited release, on March 4, 2005.

Take your time with it, and it will take its time with you.

-------------------

*UPDATE: August 31, 2005 -- My brilliant colleague Petra, a German writer who knows her movies and symbols, disagrees with me about Schultze as Mephistopheles, at least from his costume. I now think Die Fledermaus is a possibility -- but, then, why is he carrying what looks like that snake or a tail?

. . . OH! Now I see. He's carrying the woman next to him. Maybe, the bright-eyed Petra is right!

It doesn't matter. SCHULTZE GETS THE BLUES is just out on DVD, with lots of extras. Go puzzle over it yourself!






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