Paramount // 2003 // 107 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Neal Solon (Retired) // November 4th, 2005
"It's never too late to re-tune your soul."
In his autobiography, Mark Twain famously quoted fellow humorist Edgar Wilson Nye as having said "Wagner's music is better than it sounds." After watching writer/director Michael Schorr's feature film debut, Schultze Gets the Blues, that idea is somehow less foreign, though only through discovering its opposite. Schultze Gets the Blues looks and feels like it should be better than it is. The film comes across as the work of a competent director and cinematographer, yet it fails to be compelling.
Schultze (Horst Krause, A Girl Called Rose Marie) and his friends are miners in a small German mining town. As the film opens, they are retiring begrudgingly, and soon find themselves struggling to fill their excessive free time. Schultze's struggles are the most transparent, as the camera follows him through life. To Schultze, even his life-long passion for polka and the accordion suddenly seem hollow. It is not until he hears zydeco music on the radio one night that things change. He suddenly has something new to get him out of bed in the morning. He is, however, still alone. No one understands his newfound love of the Creole music. Only after making a pilgrimage to Louisiana does Schultze feel his journey is finally complete.
There is something very plodding about the way that Schultze Gets the Blues is filmed. It is virtually silent, and in almost every scene for the first thirty minutes the frame starts out empty and the characters trickle in from the edges of the screen. It's novel, and even beautiful once or twice, but as it becomes a pattern it wears on the viewer. Once the first thirty minutes or so have passed, the film becomes more bearable, but its relevance is still elusive.
Schultze lives in a very traditional German town. Like his father before him, he entertains the townspeople with his performances of traditional polkas. Thrust into retirement, he finds himself unable to relate to those around him. He only compounds his isolation by taking up zydeco, a musical language that the people in his village don't understand. It is just one of the many language barriers that play a key role in the film.
The most obvious of these is when Schultze packs up and heads for Louisiana, USA, the birthplace of zydeco. He puts himself directly in a situation where no one around him can understand his language. English surrounds him, and no one speaks a lick of German, but he is compelled to carry on. Somehow, the universal languages of hand gestures, food, and compassion prevail. That's not to say, however, that nothing's lost in the translation.
The scene in Schultze Gets the Blues that exemplifies what the film tries to do and its failings occurs during this Louisiana expedition just minutes before the film ends. Schultze pulls up next to a houseboat and haltingly asks its resident for a drink of water; she invites him aboard. As she returns with a glass of water in hand, she catches him eying her dinner: a pot full of crabs. This is the conversation that follows:
Woman: So you like crabs? Saw you looking at the crabs. Pretty thirsty,
Schultze: Durst, ja.
Woman: The crabs?
Schultze: Das ist Krebs?
Woman: Crabs? Yes! You like? You like crabs? You like? Good?
Schultze (putting his hand on his stomach): Ja, sehr gut, Krebs!
Woman: Yes, very good.
It may seem a rather dull conversation, but it is one of the few conversations where Schultze's dialogue is not translated in the subtitles. Instead, they are left in German. This, of course, serves a purpose. First, it makes the primitive exchanges between Schultze and the Americans more credible on screen, reinforcing the language barrier between Schultze and those around him. Secondly, the exchange would not have had the same meaning in English translation; "Krebs" means both "crabs" and "cancer" in German. This is a subtlety that's easily lost in the language divide between director Michael Schorr and his American audience. Schultze Gets the Blues is a meditation on man dealing with his inevitable death. Schultze Gets the Blues is meant to convey the isolation felt by a man who knows that his end is near.
Unfortunately, the film's own slothful delivery is likely to tire an audience before it discovers the true purpose of Schultze's journey, more than an hour and a half into the film. This is, of course, if the audience catches the dual meaning of "krebs" at all. It is another ironic example of language -- cinematic and verbal -- getting in the way of intended meaning.
Visually, Schultze Gets the Blues is a beautiful film. It was shot on location in Germany and the American South, and the widescreen transfer maintains the color and majesty of these places as best as film can. The only visual issues are minor annoyances due to the original camera placement and ceiling fixtures in the houses where parts of the film were shot. Schultze's head occasionally disappears behind lights dangling from the ceiling. Sonically, the presentation is also solid. The dialogue and the quirky zydeco soundtrack come across without a hitch. The film is presented in a surround sound mix, but it's a fairly quiet film, with the surrounds springing to life mostly for the sake of the music.
The contents of the disc beyond the film are somewhat lacking. The most notable inclusion is a feature-length commentary by writer and director Michael Schorr. The commentary is in German, but subtitled in English. It is largely technical and fairly dry, though is a suitable supplement for someone who enjoys the film. The only other relevant extras are three trailers for the film, which are in German and without subtitles. Also included are six previews for other Paramount films.
Michael Schorr is a director worth watching, even if the verdict on Schultze Gets the Blues is still out. The film is mind-numbingly slow, but lingers in the mind; pointless, but somehow affecting. I can neither sing its praises nor bring myself to lambaste it, but can only say that someday it will probably be interesting as the first feature film of a talented and worthwhile director.
Michael Schorr is to be released on bail. The rest of the cast and crew is free to go. Paramount, the one thing I have to say to you is this: if you're going to show me a film that moves at the pace of molasses, don't force me to slog through eleven minutes of previews for your other films first. It doesn't help!
Review content copyright © 2005 Neal Solon; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (German)
Running Time: 107 Minutes
Release Year: 2003
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
* Director's Commentary