Sing aloud to God our strength; shout for joy to the God of Jacob.
Raise a song, sound the tambourine…
Director/writer Michael Schorr’s film begins at the same point, as did the American film About Schmidt—with the retirement of its main character. Schultze (Horst Krause) is literally retiring from the salt mine, in which for all his life he had been toiling, along with his two best friends, Jurgen (Harald Warmbrunn) and Manfred (Karl Fred Muller). Their fellow miners sing a farewell song, present them each with a table lamp made from a hollowed out block of salt crystals, and then thrust them out into the unfamiliar world of endless leisure. It is in retirement that Schultze gets the blues of the title, and it will be through another form of music that he is released from his blues funk into a brighter, livelier world.
The three friends drink beer together, fish from a bridge, and play acrimonious chess games, Manfred and Jurgen arguing so sharply over the “you touch it, you must move it” rule that for a while they stop speaking to each other. The unmarried Schultze has no family ties, other than his aged mother, whom he visits regularly in a nursing home. His only interest seems to be playing his accordion—he and his two friends belong to a music club where they play and sing endlessly the old songs and polkas passed down from father to son. Schultze’s father had been a highly respected accordionist member of the club. The 50th anniversary celebration of the club’s founding is coming soon, after which the club will send a representative to an international polka festival in southern Texas.
Time hangs heavily on Schultz’s hands, neither he nor his friends really prepared for retirement. He becomes listless in his boredom, until the day when he hears on the radio an accordionist playing a zydeco tune. It’s lively cadence stands in sharp contrast to the German music he has been playing, so Schultze takes out his accordion and slowly begins to play it. His tempo soon quickens, its infectious spirit quickening his own. He plays it all the time, and broaches with his friends the possibility of playing it at the festival. He even buys a Cajun cookbook and tries his hand at cooking a jambalaya dish, which his friends enjoy very much, one of them pointing out that this was the first time that they had ever eaten a meal together in Schultze’s home.
They support him in the idea of breaking with music tradition, but the head of the festival isn’t pleased, pointing out that Schultze’s father had always played a traditional tune. Schultze goes ahead (he had tried it out on the residents of the nursing home, where only one lively woman who obviously would like to be his beau, is the only one to applaud), his fingers nimbly roving the keys as he plays the lively piece. At the end there is dead silence, until at last his small circle of friends and supporters give him a rousing ovation. At home the crestfallen musician takes his father framed photograph and turns it to the wall.
However, despite the lack of enthusiasm for his deviation from the traditional, the club votes to send Schultze to the festival in Texas. (The members’ stuck-in-the-mud mentality was in evidence earlier when nobody seemed interested in the trip when this was first discussed.) In Texas, Schultze listens to the highly talented musicians yodeling and playing. Apparently made aware of his amateur’s talents, he packs up his accordion and wanders through the grounds. The next thing we know is that he has obtained an old boat with an enclosed pilot’s cabin and is putt-putting on a river, brazenly crossing the path of a large cargo ship in what must be the Mississippi River, and soon wandering amidst the waterways and bayous of Louisiana’s Cajun country, where he hears his beloved zydeco song several times.
Given our experience with the typical Hollywood film, we expect Schultze to soon join in with one of the bands, or to find true love with one of the several people whom he meets. This doesn’t happen, the visitor simply enjoying himself and soaking up the culture and music of the place. He knows but a few words and phrases of English, the one which he employs the most being “Thank you”—there are many little moments of grace in which people reach out and help him, from the Polish polka band which gives him a ride back to his boat after he has walked for gasoline to a filling station, to the bayou police who pull his stranded boat from an entanglement of brush, to the Creole woman who invites him to stay at her houseboat for a meal, and who takes him to a dance, where—.
It is hard to believe that this is Michael Schorr’s first film, so adept is he at avoiding sentimentality and other movie cliches. He works very much in the European film tradition, which means long and languid shots. There is no fancy camera work: his camera merely is set up, and characters walk in and out of the field, the shot often continuing to show the setting for ten seconds or more after a character has departed. I suspect an American director would have saved fifteen to twenty minutes of screen time by cutting the shots shorter, but Mr. Schorr is in no hurry—we are over half way through the film before Schultze arrives in Texas. Nor should we be.
The film’s droll humor reminds me of Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismaki’s The Man Without a Past, though our German hero is much less energized. Indeed, at first Schultze is about as close to a human cipher as one can get, but his encounter with, and giving himself over to, a new, enlivening form of music, slowly transforms him. He probably does not think as the Psalmist would, that he is playing aloud to God, but his song, what in other Psalms often is called “a new song,” is no doubt well received in heaven.