Last year Schultze Gets the Blues, a German film, played in Berkeley theaters for just a week and to generally small audiences. After one matinee screening, a group of women walked out casting sideways glances at each other and rolling their eyes. “What did you think?” one asked another. “I don’t knowwwww…..” was the response.
Taste is subjective of course, but I couldn’t help but feel that an opportunity had been missed, for Schultze is a film of rare intelligence and grace, the sort of film that is not often made in America today. It is not only an excellent film and a far deeper one than may be first evident, but a superb opportunity for the film novice who is just beginning to take an interest in the possibilities of cinematic language. Schultze is full of simple, subtle visual cues—composition, lighting, editing and juxtaposition—expertly used to reveal character, plot and subtext.
And now that the dust has settled around the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, having been kicked up by the media rushing back into the beleaguered city for a series of breathless updates, it seems a good time to revisit the image of New Orleans that we had before disaster struck; a chance to look back, with affection, nostalgia and sadness, at the myths and legends of the city, myths and legends that we once believed in and hope to one day believe in again.
The story itself is simple: Schultze, a staid, unadventurous man, retires after a life spent working in the salt mines of Germany only to find that he has little to occupy his time. Until, that is, he discovers Zydeco music, a happy accident that leads to a life-altering journey.
Our first glimpse of the man comes in the film’s opening shot. A solitary windmill turns slowly above a flat horizon as Schultze, in silhouette, traverses the frame on his bicycle. We then get a series of scenes with little dialogue that establish Schultze as something of a non-entity. His two friends do most of the talking while Schultze sits silently and watches. He is merely a sidekick to more charismatic men, a mute witness to the lives and passions of others. He is inscrutable, distant, dutiful and bland, his face often concealed by the brim of his hat, and expressionless when not. Director Michael Schorr composes his frames carefully, often keeping the horizon and this characters low in the frame to show that it is a big world and Schultze is just one small part of it, an inconsequential figure amid a vast landscape.
It is a good 25 minutes before we finally get a good look at his face. When Schultze discovers Zydeco he comes into the foreground for the first time and finally looms large before us, his face illuminated by the glow of the golden light of the radio dial: the magic of Zydeco by way of a magic Philco. He has finally become a presence, a personality rather than a mere figure occupying space.
And suddenly life begins to take shape for him. He immediately picks up his accordion to play his usual polka, but soon begins playing faster and faster until he has achieved something resembling Zydeco. He is no longer merely a vessel for the continuation of his traditional polkas and waltzes; Zydeco has transformed him.
Eventually Schultze makes his way to America to play in a Texas music festival, but Texas doesn’t have what he’s looking for and he soon heads for New Orleans. The fact that he manages to secure himself a boat and sets off down the Mississippi River is the cue that the film has now taken another direction. This is no longer a simple road trip but a hero’s journey into a mythical city. Schultze becomes a sort of Huck Finn, or even a Marlowe perhaps, but he is not venturing into some dark and brooding heart of darkness but deeper into his own dreams and hopes in search of the joy and love and music and passion that has lain dormant within him for so many years. He has risen from the dark of the mineshaft into the golden light of music, and is finally releasing himself into the lowdown, muddy swamps of pleasure and camaraderie.
Once the river journey begins it may it may seem that Schorr is indulging in stereotypes, as Schultze is taken in by an earthy black mother of a fatherless child, a woman who welcomes him without question and cooks him soul food—the very picture of the spiritual African-American so often idealized in trite Hollywood movies. But bear in mind here, this is no longer a trip through the American South or through the Louisiana Delta as it truly exists, but rather through the delta as seen through the prism of folklore. We are witnessing the South as seen through the eyes of a man who has never before left his German homeland and who has only vague and romanticized notions of what he may find. Whether his vision is true is hardly the point; it only matters that it is true for him, that he has found a world in which he wants and needs to believe, a sort of final reward for a life of duty, hard work and quiet diligence.
Schultze’s stay in New Orleans concludes with a wistful closing shot of silhouettes dancing in silence to the joyous rhythms of Zydeco and fades out with a gentle sigh, the contented exultation of a man who has seen the promised land and found peace. It is a glimpse of the myths and legends of the New Orleans we believed in until the levees broke and reality came flooding in. Schorr then finishes the film as he began it, with the steady, timeless whirl of the windmill above a landscape as silhouetted figures continue on their way, a quiet reminder that life goes on, and that the gentle, impish spirit of joy and passion will endure.
SCHULTZE GETS THE BLUES (2003)
Written and directed by Michael Schorr. Starring Horst Krause. In German with English subtitles. Paramount. 114 mimutes.
Photograph: Horst Krause plays a staid, unadventurous man who becomes enthralled by Zydeco music in Schultze Gets the Blues.