Tuesday, October 09, 2007


A Saxon on the Bayou

By Escutcheon Blot
Schultze is a salt miner in Saxony-Anhalt in the heart of eastern Germany, forced into early retirement, along with his two best friends, Manfred and Jurgen. Each is given a salt-crystal lamp, and then thrown to the wolves of pensioner-dom. The daily routine of life without work wears on all three men, as the two friends become more and more short-tempered and Schultze is caught in the middle in Schultze Gets the Blues.

A popular local accordionist, Schultze is preparing his perennial polka for the local music club's 50th anniversary gala. Flipping through radio channels in his lonely house one evening, he is arrested by the lively strains of Louisiana Zydeco. One thing leads to another and soon Schultze, the quintessential "Hans Wurst," the German everyman, is playing zydeco instead of polkas and cooking jambalaya for his wondering buddies. Opting for zydeco rather than a polka, Schultze manages to insult the entire music-club at the big gala. However, they magnanimously forgive him, opting to send him to a German Festival in Texas.

Schultze packs up his accordion and heads to America. He is bemused by the typically American conflation of all regional German attributes into one cohesive whole, leaning very heavily on the Bavarian aspects. To understand this cultural fish-out-of-water feeling, not immediately obvious to an American audience, one should know that Saxony-Anhalt and Bavaria are not at all close to each other; they have very different cultures and different dialects of German are spoken, and were not even part of the same country until the 1860s. Schultze's reaction would probably be similar to that of a Kentucky Blue Grass fiddler plopped down in Miami and asked to play salsa. He escapes the festival, rents a small, blue boat, and goes off to discover the bayou country, meeting and charming the residents(the females especially) along the way — incidentally, without being able to speak more than about five words of English.

Director Michael Schorr and his cast of German professionals and American amateurs — mostly, combine to give a touching, often funny ... in a dry, German sort of way...story of a man yearning for something more, after a lifetime of having done what was expected of him. Horst Krause gives a dignified and touchingly vulnerable, albeit pot-bellied, reading of Schultze, leavening his essentially tragic performance with deft comedic moments. This is above all a vehicle for Krause, but his two kumpel (buddies) played by Harald Warmbrunn and Karl-Fred Mueller, are both experienced actors from the German state-theater system, beautifully trained, and play off each other's irritating foibles perfectly — grumpy old men with a Saxon accent. The other actors, many not professionals, together with the matter-of-fact cinematography, contribute a quasi-documentary reality to the film's underlying fabric.

The movie explores that very common German sentiment of modern times, Sehnsucht, or longing — specifically for people and places foreign, colorful, lively, and sunny. It is no coincidence that Germany is one of the biggest markets for Bollywood films in Europe, and that Germany loses close to a quarter of a million people a year to emigration. Production designer Natascha Tagwerk provides the grimily realistic backdrop of a post-communist mining town, and her dreary interiors do much to explain Schultze's own wish to get away ... without exaggerating the reality of eastern German life.

The film is slow-paced, but appropriately so – mirroring the quiet desperation of Schultze's life, picking it up a bit when he gets to the U.S. (Incidentally, the Americans in the film are handled fairly and with affection — reflecting what I think is the general German view of us 'Ami's.') I watched it twice on successive days, and was surprised and chagrined by the subtleties I missed the first time around. And, with its relatively sparse dialogue, it is a relatively painless film to watch with subtitles (which are well translated, if slightly less-humorous than the original).

Schultze Gets the Blues was released in 2003, with a wider, German release in 2004 and internationally in 2005. It won several prizes in Stockholm, Venice, Gijon, etc, film festivals, including best directorial debut, best actor, best film, best art direction, and best script. This is a film well worth watching, and maybe watching again.

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Terrific review...I thought this was a great film as well.

I love the way it takes its time in Schultze's hometown and gives you an opportunity to get to know it (particularly with the beautiful visuals). Schultze's reaction to hearing zydeco on the radio for the first time was just spot on perfect as it flipped between surprise, confusion, suspicion and concentration. It actually takes almost a full hour for him to even get to the Bayou, but that's OK...The additional slices of American life that the camera lingers on are also very well done and were similar to "Y Tu Mama Tambien" in that it glimpsed parts of the culture most people might not see.
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