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For Filmmaker, Zydeco Struck A Teutonic Chord

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 27, 2005; Page N01

Michael Schorr, the director of a low-budget but critically acclaimed film called "Schultze Gets the Blues," laughs at anything. Not a big laugh, or a nervous laugh, just a gentle, happy-to-be-bemused-with-the-world sort of laugh. Ask him about the opening setting of the film, a region called Saxon-Anhalt, and he chuckles a bit and says, "It is a blank space in Germany, a very poor area, it is a forgotten area." And he laughs a little more to finish the thought.

Out of this forgotten place emerges one of the more unlikely film heroes, a fat, pudding-faced, middle-aged German man named Schultze, who harks back to stereotypes of the harmless, beer-loving, happily philistine Germans of an earlier, more innocent era. Schultze doesn't wear a monocle, doesn't strut around in black leather, doesn't plot murder, mayhem or world domination. For most of his life he sticks close to home, plays the accordion, drinks with his friends, doffs his hat to the ladies, and listens to the radio. He is a throwback to the German Everyman of the 19th century such as one might find in the writings of Heinrich Heine -- free of angst, devoid of malice.

Horst Krause plays the unlikely protagonist in the zydeco-propelled "Schultze Gets the Blues." (Christian Stollwerk)

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"He is an old-fashioned guy," says Schorr. "But there are quite a few of those left. They wear their hats, they love their food, they are very well behaved." But, he adds, "Slowly he develops into a real character."

That development is set on its path by an unlikely spark. Schultze, who has lost his job in the salt mines, is forced into early retirement. He's bored, and shiftless. And then, one night alone in his very spartan apartment in what used to be East Germany, he hears a little riff of zydeco music -- which works its way into his brain and sets him on a journey that will end in the bayous of Louisiana.

Schorr, 38, who weighs about 150 pounds less than his hero Schultze (played by the marvelous German character actor Horst Krause), has crafted a film that cuts against the Hollywood grain. And against the grain of the great German filmmakers of the 1970s, the Herzogs and Fassbinders who gave German film a reputation for being dark, complex and witty only in a bitterly ironic way. Schorr's movie -- his first big-screen film -- is a good-natured amble, with touches of gentle humor, and only a single flash of anything approaching hostility. It is an intensely humanist film, exploring a succession of gentle decencies exchanged between people of very different backgrounds.

That was the whole point, Schorr says, and it put him into conflict with some of the people who might have helped fund his $1 million opus.

"When we had discussions" with potential backers, he says, "there was always the question, Where is the confrontation? All the usual screenplay things you encounter: Where is the villain, where is the hero? It was obvious that this is not a film like that."

Schorr managed to secure funding from public and private sources, maintained his creative independence, and produced a film that has had success at festivals across Europe.

Schorr, who studied philosophy and musicology before film, uses music as the goad to his character's transformation. Schultze is an accordionist, a lifelong devotee of the polka, until zydeco gets into his imagination and leads him away from his small German village. As the scene changes, so does the musical focus: Polka with its strong and regular accents gives way to zydeco, which is off the beat, and somehow slippery in a way that appeals to the once stolid Schultze.

Schorr's film might have gone any number of predictable directions. It could have ended up as a feel-good crowd pleaser, such as Mark Herman's 1997 "Brassed Off" (which also begins with the premise of music as a redemptive force in a bleak world of unemployed miners). It could have become a simple valentine -- to zydeco or the polka -- and remained rooted in a single place, a single ethos. But it is fundamentally a film about travel, and encounters with different places and people.

The small miracle of Schorr's direction, and Krause's acting, is that Schultze is about as blank and aimless as a traveler can be -- yet he slowly gains sympathy and depth. He is a caricature unaware of being a caricature, a freakish man who wanders into new places and through pure, innate amiability, leads an apparently charmed life.

Schorr wrote the script for "Schultze Gets the Blues" 10 years ago. In between writing the script and making the film, he went to film school. He produced a few documentaries, and then set about trying to find the funding for the "Schultze" project. He is part of a new generation of German filmmakers who have emerged after the post-'70s doldrums of the German movie business.

Schorr has a definitely eccentric sensibility.

That eccentricity is most apparent in what isn't present in the film. It is a film about middle-aged and older people, without the young, beautiful specimens that haunt the films of of Hollywood (and all too much of independent film). It is a film entirely devoid of the conventional, tension-building plot devices, and it revels in little details -- a radio that begins speaking directly to the main character -- that pierce the usual, dull expectations of cause and effect reality. Near the end, Schorr's film becomes a little darker, a little more ominous, but you can never quite put your finger on the reason -- and then it ends with a joke. Even in his construction of the plot, Schorr has been happy to remove things -- motivations, background -- that might obligate the viewer to a single reading of the film.

Schultze, for example, finds a boat and takes it. Does he steal it? Perhaps. The question lingers, and is eventually dissolved in the realization that it doesn't matter. Schultze is a man who is floating through life, with the currents, and he needs the boat, and that's all that counts.

"Since the whole film wasn't much about explaining things, more about discovering things, we cut it out," says Schorr, when asked about how his main character suddenly finds himself piloting a small craft into the consuming expanse of the Mississippi delta. There was, originally, some footage that made sense of this moment. But when asked what it showed, Schorr gives a little laugh and jokes, "For legal reasons, I can't comment."

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