It may hail from Germany, but this minimalist, statically shot comedy about an erstwhile miner and champion accordionist who becomes intoxicated with the zydeco music of the Louisiana bayou has the feel of the delightfully offbeat films of Aki Kaurismaki (just think of “The Man Without a Past”). And though its writer-director Michael Schorr isn’t quite able to sustain his quirky tale–a feature debut–over its entire length, “Schultze Gets the Blues” remains a charming oddity.
The titular hero of the piece of the piece is a plump, gently bear-like fellow–physically a bit like the similarly-named sergeant on the old “Hogan’s Heroes” series–played with a dour sort of likableness by Horst Krause. Schultze, along with his two closest pals Jurgen (Harald Warmbrunn) and Manfred (Karl-Fred Muller), has just been forcibly retired from his job in the salt mines, and now he spends his time tending his garden and accompanying his bickering buddies on jaunts around town on their bicycles. (One of the recurring jokes involves the trio regularly stymied in their progress by a railway gate that has to be raised manually by a keeper more interested in his reading than his job.) Schultze also is the town’s leading musician–an accordionist who’s followed his famous father’s footsteps in playing polkas. One evening his life changes, however, when he accidentally tunes in some zydeco music on his radio and becomes entranced with it. He begins playing it himself–to the consternation of many locals, though Jurgen and Harald are supportive, though a bit bewildered–and grows intrigued with the culture that produced it (making jambalaya at home, for instance). He also takes a succession of part-time jobs–which usually turn out disastrously–to try to raise money for a trip to America. That finally comes about, however, when his local Musikverein chooses him as its representative to a festival of folk music in New Braunfels, Texas; but he soon ditches the event, somehow acquires a tiny boat (it’s never clear how), and chugs his way into the Louisiana bayous, where he meets up episodically with locals (like a polka band and mother and daughter who live on a houseboat) and enjoys immersing himself in the local culture until a bittersweet close.
“Schultze Gets the Blues” is basically a reversal of the hackneyed saw that an old dog can’t learn new tricks, and though that’s hardly a new story, Schorr has managed to present it in a way unlike any we’ve seen before, and it’s executed so engagingly that the end result is positively beguiling. That’s especially the case with the initial segments of the picture, set in Germany, where the cultural clash set off by this mild-mannered retiree is evoked with a deadpan sense of humor that’s pitch-perfect; Schorr’s habit of shooting scenes with a virtually immobile camera at an unhurried, sometimes even glacial, pace adds to the charm. To be honest, when the story moves to the States the touch becomes less assured. The final section of “Schultze” offers moments of considerable pleasure (as when Schultze links up with a lady on a Louisiana dance floor, only to misunderstand when she goes off to get them drinks), but some episodes fall a bit flat, probably because they seem to have been shot on-the-fly using unprofessionals. (Most of the New Braunfels material belongs to this category.)
But if Schorr doesn’t manage to maintain the delight of his picture’s initial sections fully, he keeps “Schultze” sufficiently afloat even in its weaker episodes that it never flounders, and he manages a finale that balances poignance and humor quite effectively. To appreciate the picture, you’ll have to tune in to its peculiar wavelength, just as with a similarly quirky American film like “Sideways.” But if you’re willing to do that, you’ll find it a gently rib-tickling, genuinely warm-hearted jewel.