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Squeeze Play: Horst Krause gets his mojo on in 'Schultze Gets the Blues.'

Sweet and Salty

A German accordionist dreams of Texas in 'Schultze Gets the Blues'

By Richard von Busack

THE POET Baudelaire wrote, "Work is the salt that preserves mummified souls." If that's true, just imagine how a lifelong salt miner feels. The lead of Schultze Gets the Blues is an aged and obese saltman, just put out to pasture. As a going-away present, Schultze is given one of those salt-crystal lanterns that New Agers claim are salubrious—or saltubrious, anyway. Contemplating his retirement gift, the old man touches it with a finger and tastes it. "Salty," he observes.

Old Schultze (Horst Krause, physically a cross between Gert "Goldfinger" Frobe and Curly Stooge) lives in a very flat and extremely remote German town dominated by a huge rock. He has a small house with a side yard, in which a sick Norfolk pine stands, yearning for the release of death. Nothing, it seems, has happened in this lonesome prairie since the glaciers last visited. The trains speed through as if trying to get out of town as quick as they can. The local bar is a morgue with beer taps; a fellow miner cheers Schultze upon his retirement, "You're a pensioner. You can stay here as long as you want." Single and proper bachelor that Schultze is, he has one recreation. As his father did before him, Schultze plays the accordion in a traditional polka band.

One day, this silent individual tunes his TV to a Louisiana cooking show and becomes instantly infected with the swamp-music bug. Hearing what Cajuns and Creoles do with the accordion, he tries to pick up on some cut-time waltzes. This confuses the locals, who don't have a taste for "jungle music." But thanks to an invitation to the New Braunfels German Festival, Schultze is finally able to voyage to the kingdom of zydeco.

Though it has a gentle underside to its saline humor, Schultze Gets the Blues is a comedy as bleak and dry as they come. Shooting with long lenses and long pauses, director Michael Schorr keeps even the happiest moments icy. I far prefer Schultze Gets the Blues to Napoleon Dynamite's own slothy comedy of depression, probably because the payoff is less winner-take-all. Schorr builds his situations, rather than just fading them into blackouts. You come to respect Schultze's salt-desiccated dignity. The accordionist's wary but correct way of greeting the world becomes a running gag: "Schultze." He says it like that, bowing a stiff bow, in the same way Jacques Tati used to blurt the word "Hulot" right into the baffled faces of strangers.

The Texas of the Germanfest isn't a sunny promised land, but rainy and half-deserted; the event takes place in half-empty sheds that look like the last day of the county fair. Schultze's big moment of possibility occurs during one of those morning gigs that any musician dreads. Unlike Napoleon's dancing triumph onstage, Schultze fails to win fans. Like most of us, he makes no great leap into stardom. But this isn't a downbeat movie as such. Schorr and his hulking, touching lead transcend the anhedonia of a moment. Without coddling an audience, this movie makes its own warmth.

Schultze Gets the Blues (PG; 114 min.), directed and written by Michael Schorr, photographed by Alex Schneppat and starring Horst Krause, opens Friday at selected theaters.

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From the March 16-22, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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