When Schultze and his friends retire from their jobs in the salt mines (one of them says they were kicked out), they are given as a parting gift a large rock of illuminated salt. Schultze frequently spends time looking at his rock, and we cannot tell exactly what he is thinking.
The first half of Schultze Gets the Blues (2003; dir. Michael Schorr) examines the landscape of Schultze’s retirement. The tone of the movie is quiet and unhurried. It conveys monotony, uniformity, and routine. It shows us scenes of German industrial landscapes, suburban housing sites where the houses (as in Pete Seeger’s song) never vary. The film is especially fond of showing a particular field with power-generating windmills. The contrast between the beautiful green field and the windmills is stark. Schultze and friends often fish off a railroad trestle. His routine never varies, just as it must never have varied before retirement. He watches television, goes to the local bar to drink with his mates, occasionally takes part in contests and festivals. If he ever had a family, we see no evidence of it. In several scenes he seems to be trying to figure out what to do with his time. His face conveys complete impassivity. He is the least expressive character in the film, up to a point. His one interest is the accordion. Year after year in a local music festival he plays the same polka. People know that he will play it and look forward to his performance. The polka is who he is.
None of the characters in this film look as if they have ever been near a professional acting studio, much less a Hollywood one. Wonderfully quirky—they seem drawn from the streets, retirement homes, factories. They are eccentric, physically imperfect, awkward, and real. The film’s muted tone, the joy it takes in its odd array of characters—these may simply reflect contemporary German cinema in general, but they gave me great pleasure nonetheless.
The film emphasizes the emptiness of the lives of these men without work. Schultze strikes up friendly relationships with women. One is a flamboyant older woman who lives in the nursing home where his senile mother lives. She encourages him to try new things and is especially enthusiastic about his musical interests. One evening he goes with his friends to pick her up from the nursing home so they can attend a music festival and learns that she has died. Another friendship is with a younger woman who temporarily works in the bar where he and his friends are regulars. She’s attractive, doesn’t wear a bra, and does a flamenco dance on the table in the café. She fascinates Schultze and his friends—they don’t know what to make of her.
One night Schulze hears a brief moment of Zydeco music on his radio. He becomes obsessed with it. He stops enjoying the polka music he’s played for twenty-five years and begins playing a version of what he heard on the radio. He plays the music too fast and without much rhythm but it’s a departure from his old ways. Everyone who hears Schultze play his new song is astounded that he has changed his tune. The temporary waitress at the bar hears him play, seems to understand what he is going through, and gives him a book about Louisiana zydeco music.
The music festival in which he perform his new music (to virtually no applause—one person in the audience calls out that it is “nigger music”) chooses him to play in a festival at a sister city in Texas. He goes, realizes he can’t play as well as the other musicians there, and rents a small boat on which he makes his way through the bayous of Louisiana, having different experiences, meeting people, until finally a woman welcomes him on to her house boat, feeds him, and takes him to a music hall where he hears the band playing the song he first heard on the radio. Then he dies.
At his funeral, the German brass band that formerly would have played his polka instead plays the Zydeco song he played on his accordion. This makes for a moment of absurd dissonance—the mourners in black, following along behind the German oompah-pah-pah band, which is playing Zyedeco. In a final scene (reminiscent of The Seventh Seal) band members and mourners march in single file across the field with the windmill.
The American South in this film is a place of welcome difference for Schultze. He knows virtually nothing about it, until he hears Zydeco on the radio. When the waitress gives him the book about Cajun music, his imagination takes over. When he cruises up the waterways of Cajun country, what is he looking for? In some sense, he’s looking for the idealized South he has imagined based on the music and the book. But he’s also looking for the music itself, the culture surrounding it. He’s looking for acceptance and change, for a culture of which he can feel a part. The film shows Cajun country as a place of friendly, sometimes wary people willing to accept Schultze as he is. Sometimes they misunderstand one another—in a small dance hall, Schultze dances with a woman who goes off to get them both a drink. He doesn’t understand (linguistic difficulties) and believes she has lost interest in him. She returns with the drinks and he is gone. Finally he pulls alongside a houseboat to ask for a drink of water. He strikes up a friendship with the black woman on the boat, and she invites him to dinner with her and her daughter. Later she takes him to the music hall where he hears the music he has been searching for.
Schultze probably dies of lung cancer, based on several hints in the film—his coughing, and a TV announcement he turns off in midstream about the risk of cancer among mineworkers. Given his apparent vigor, his decline at the end is sudden and unexpected, but also appropriate given the closure it brings. This is both a gently comic and poignantly sad film.
I’m approaching that time in life when many people retire. Many friends and colleagues have already retired, or died, and I listen to the living ones talk about their new freedom, or their boredom, and what they are doing with their lives. I worry over what will happen to me . Will I find myself in the same situation as Schultze, faced with nothing to do, no choices, a succession of endless, weary, declining days?