Nothing much happens in director Michael Schorr’s first film “Schultze Gets the Blues.” There are no car chases, no psychological profiles and definitely no sex scenes. Only the most mundane elements of German existence are represented in its sparsely populated, unwavering frames. Conceivably, there is a sense of humor lurking somewhere amid the run-down buildings of the film’s dour mining town, but it isn’t until “Schultze” trains its deadpan eye on America that anything remotely funny finally surfaces. All in all, to put it nicely, the film falls flat.
Schultze (Horst Krause) is an older heavyweight miner who lives in a small shack on the edge of a rural East German town. After retiring from his job at the local mine with three buddies, he finds himself with a lot of free time on his hands. At first he has some fun, though even tilling a small garden riddled with more lawn gnomes than plants gets wearisome. Nothing seems to alleviate his boredom until he hears a Texas dance song on the radio. Whipping out his trusty accordion, Schultze practices the simple tune until he gets good at it, delighting in its monotonous melody. He eventually plays the song for the town — with largely negative results, though one woman seems very interested in Schultze’s music.
All the right ingredients for something interesting are in place. A megalomaniacal toll-gate operator, kooky townspeople, a possible love interest and a music competition are all poised to make things happen. But nothing does. In this first half of the film, Schorr lets these elements fade away without tapping them.
Fortunately (or unfortunately), the story continues: As a consolation prize, Schultze’s friends give him a plane ticket to a folk festival in Texas. He arrives only to find that the other musicians are way better. So he does what any levelheaded German accordion player does: He takes a riverboat through the Gulf of Mexico to Louisiana. Somewhere along the way — who knows where — he apparently finds himself.
While this story may sound a whole lot like Alexander Payne’s “About Schmidt,” Schorr makes no attempt at exploring his main character. Instead, he lets the camera do all the work — perhaps he figured that if he watched Schultze long enough, the odds were in his favor that something would happen. Schorr’s passivity makes for some outrageously dull scenes in the potently vacuous German countryside. His feeble attempts at surrealism — like a barmaid who breaks into an imaginary bout of flamenco, a la Susan Stroman’s dance “Contact” — are too obvious to make a good pick-me-up.
It doesn’t help that the film’s shots are all far too long. Schorr seems unable to cut in the middle of the action, letting each shot relinquish its energy entirely before moving on. Worse, he seems perpetually distracted. He has the odd habit of inserting random shots that are supposed to be interesting — while conversely leaving out critical ones. This severely disjoints a plot that can’t afford the disjunction.
But things pick up in America, where Schultze runs into country folk with true character. Seen through a German lens, Texas becomes a nowhere land, with motels that look like Swiss cottages and English-singing performers dressed in lederhosen for a Bavarian festival. On his way to the bayou, Schultze meets many an eccentric, culminating in the wonderful Aretha (Anne Angelle), who lives on a houseboat and takes Schultze to a ho-down. Schorr gets lucky with these later scenes, digging deep down into a mixed-up America.
When the film is at its best, truth and warmth surface in the most unlikely places. At one point in Texas, Schultze hitches a ride from a group called Bobby Jones’s Czech Band, but is almost entirely unable to communicate with them due to his spotty English. Noticing their name, he gleefully asks if they speak Russian: They don’t.
In these woefully few scattered moments of genuine humor, “Schultze Gets the Blues” shows us that our country is a little less normal than we would like to think, especially through the eyes of foreigners. Yet these interesting scenes at the film’s end hardly manage to save the film from its dim meandering. If only Schorr was a better navigator.