The bittersweet German black comedy Schultze Gets the Blues opens with an image reminiscent of the cinema of the eccentric Werner Herzog: a grassy landscape, barren of life save for two spare windmills and, eventually, a distant figure on a bicycle, passing through the frame.
The figure is Schultze (Horst Krause), a jowly Weeble-like fellow with a job at his small town's salt mine. Except not any more: He's been retired, and he leaves work that day to a rousing chorus of a silly song and with a novelty lamp shaped like an amorphous chunk of salt.
He goes home. He settles into his boredom. He plays a polka on his accordion, fluffs the pillows on his couch, takes a nap. He hangs out with Manfred and Jürgen, his two long-time colleagues and fellow retirees, who have never visited his home. And then, he hears some zydeco music on the radio, and it changes his musical taste so drastically that he runs to his doctor to see if he's OK. (The doctor says yes, and then sings some opera -- his dream profession, unfulfilled).
Written and directed by Michael Schorr, Schultze Gets the Blues is (to be generous) a deliberate study of a languid existence, and a rather odd poem to an American subculture. His movie is at once transparent and opaque: Clearly a tale about stirring things up, especially if you've been declared obsolete, it's just as much a Teutonic social satire with ultra-dry humor that may not resonate on this side of the pond.
Slow is one thing -- Herzog mastered the art of tense, absorbing, snail-paced German cinema; Wim Wenders didn't -- but Schorr seems to employ lethargy as its own reward. Most of his modest visual gags end before they begin, and his only truly funny bit is a radio cooking program whose prescient host anticipates Schultze's impatience. ("I said let it simmer!" he snaps, when Schultze lifts the skillet lid on his jambalaya.)
For the 50th anniversary of the local music club in Schultze's town, its sister city in Texas offers to fly one musician to America to perform at a community festival. Of course, Schultze wins the trip to Wurstfest, where a tinny brass band plays a reverential "Deutschland, Deutschland íœber Alles," and where the old-timers sit around doing pretty much nothing, just like back at home.
At this point, Schultze Gets the Blues begins to recall Wenders' Paris, Texas, another German movie fascinated with an American myth. But when Schultze leaves Texas to visit Louisiana, his amorphous odyssey leads him to a slightly more authentic place -- and to a sudden bittersweet tranquility that hardly seems different from the life he's lived so far. It's not much of a revelation, but it's better than nothing. In German, with subtitles.