A disarmingly bittersweet comedy about a middle-aged polka accordionist who gets a new lease on life from his discovery of Cajun music, accomplished first-time writer-director Michael Schorr’s “Schultze Gets the Blues” recalls the deadpan drollery and unglamorous working-class characters of Scandinavian directors like Aki Kaurismaki and Bent Hamer. While it feels overlong and loses energy in the midsection when the protagonist travels from Germany to Texas, this small but charming film has enough in its favor to land on the slates of niche distributors. Schorr won a special jury prize for direction in the Venice fest’s Upstream competition.
The film starts in Ken Loach territory: Middle-aged Schultze (Horst Krause) and his buddies Jurgen (Harald Warmbrunn) and Manfred (Karl-Fred Muller) are nudged into early retirement after working the mines in small-town former East Germany. Life goes on for unmarried Schultze in a somewhat desultory fashion between his chronic cough, the beer hall, fishing excursions and the local folkmusic club, where his father was considered a giant among polka musicians.
When he hears a jaunty zydeco riff on the radio, Schultze is inspired to adopt a new accordion style, defying his family heritage and shocking the tradition-bound club members.
Despite his anxiety over change, Schultze feels invigorated by the new tune he’s playing. He learns to cook jambalaya and takes temporary jobs to save for a trip to Louisiana. A sudden price hike puts the fare out of reach, but spurred by Jurgen and Manfred, the music club sends Schultze as its representative to compete in a Texas folk fest.
The comedy loses steam briefly as Schultze is taken out of his natural environment. But the film reasserts itself in unpredictable ways, regaining momentum and a flavorful, liberated mood as — with no acquaintances and virtually no English — the German discovers a spirit of adventure.
Backing out of the music event when he sees the intimidating level of competition, Schultze acquires a humble motorboat and begins an untroubled journey through the backwaters and bayous of Texas and Louisiana, punctuated by odd encounters, that leads to a poignant conclusion.
Schorr’s skill as a visual storyteller and humorist is considerable. With very little camera movement throughout the film, he sets up static shots with a keen compositional sense, a pleasing grasp of narrative economy and a deft eye for amusing detail.
This is a warm-hearted movie with real affection for its eccentric characters, particularly rotund Schultze, delightfully played by Krause with a beaming grin and only a sprinkling of dialogue.