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'Schultze': Let The Rhythm Move You

By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 4, 2005; Page WE41

MAYBE YOU aren't predisposed to watch a movie about a tubby German, his trusty accordion and his newfound passion for zydeco music. But should you give "Schultze Gets the Blues," your indulgence, it will charge up your bellows. And Schultze's Teutonic tummy will suddenly exude the charm of a Buddha belly.

In a salt mining community in Germany, the taciturn Schultze (Horst Krause) and his fellow workers face their retirement years without much to look forward to. This is a dead-end corner of the world, where the unmarried Schultze's social options amount to lifting a stein with his pals Manfred and Juergen (Karl-Fred Muller and Harald Warmbrunn), playing polka tunes at his music club or visiting his infirm mother in a rest home. His health doesn't portend good things. That work in the mine has left him coughing.

Schultze (Horst Krause) develops a taste for zydeco music -- and life -- in "Schultze Gets the Blues." (Grit Schwerdtfeger -- Paramount Classics)

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When he hears a burst of bayou boogie on the radio, everything changes. Something stirs inside him. You can play the accordion like that? Your heart can actually race when you're performing? Schultze pulls out his accordion and imitates the zydeco theme: It's fast, peppy and intoxicating. It's a call to life.

Eager to play this music, Schultze performs some zydeco for the highly traditional music club and his mom's home. Evidently Louisiana swamp music doesn't sit well with oldsters or the oompah crowd. He is met with expressions of stoned silence and even one outburst of racist hostility. Suddenly, Schultze has become a rebel in suspenders. But the locals are thoughtful enough to offer him a trip to a polka festival in Moulton, Tex., their sister town. Schultze flies to America with a new purpose in his life. He has to hear more of that devil's music. And it isn't long before he's left the polka festival behind and is floating through the bayous on a shrimp boat.

Schultze's journey takes him to the world, and the kindred spirits, he seeks. There's a cheery collection of Czechs who hand him vodka when he asks for "petroleum" to refill his tank. He meets a wonderfully warm Creole woman and her daughter, who invite him aboard their houseboat for dinner. And when Schultze walks into a zydeco dance hall, where the dancers' ages run from teen to senior, he not only finds the Music, he meets someone to dance with.

Writer-director Michael Schorr has made a sweet movie that takes its time at first but soon takes you over. The movie's restrained dialogue and pregnant pauses reprise the deadpan spirit of the films of Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki (and also, Buster Keaton and Jim Jarmusch), as Schultze and his German friends sit somberly together in their local pub or, in the United States, when the tight-lipped but friendly Schultze encounters all those weird and wonderful folks. But there's something serious in all this, too. This isn't just a quick trip to hear some zydeco, it's a spiritual journey. And whether Schultze ever gets that musical theme down right -- and oh, how he tries and tries -- he's doing something that matters deeply to him. And as we watch his sustained enthusiasm, it matters more and more to us.

SCHULTZE GETS THE BLUES (PG, 114 minutes) -- Contains mild obscenity. In German with subtitles. At Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle.

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