Eastern blues, Southern comforts: searching for Heimat on the Bayous.
Europeans were taught that the South was interesting, complicated, fecund, mobile, even as traditional American historiography told us that the South was backward, immoral, belated, inferior, frozen. Those old indigenous quarrels that go back to slavery and abolitionism were available to Europeans, but not compulsory, and there were no significant cultural penalties for resisting those stereotypes. (5) (2)
The young German director Michael Schorr, whose award-winning debut film, Schultze Gets the Blues (2003), begins in Eastern Germany and moves to the Southern states, offers a rather unusual take on the South that corresponds neither to the negative stereotypes identified by O'Brien nor to the "interesting, complicated" South that he mentions. The positive reception to Schultze Gets the Blues largely centered on lead actor Horst Krause's performance, on Schorr's economical direction, and on a plot whose middle-aged, monolingual protagonist and milieu showed little regard for the usual audience demographic. The focus of this essay, however, is on Schorr's unconventional approach to documenting the South through the eponymous Schultze's journey, and on the similarities, both implicit and explicit, between the American South and Eastern Germany. While the transcontinental translocation of Schultze Gets the Blues is unique in post-unification cinema, Schorr is by no means the only German director to have set his sights on the United States. The relocation to Hollywood has long been a benchmark of success for German (and indeed for most non-US) actors and directors. But the US has also exerted a fascination over some German filmmakers, whose interest in heading West is as much sociological and artistic as it is financial. A characteristically unconventional and rather skewed view of American culture was offered by Werner Herzog in his 1977 film, Stroszeck. Following its German protagonists from Berlin to Wisconsin, the film offered a bleakly comical portrait of small town America, which proves a bewildering and finally enervating experience for the unconventional German migrants (an old man with an interest in animal magnetism, a nail, and a prostitute), and stands in stark contrast to their dreams of the American way of life. By turns eccentric and depressing, Herzog's film displays the same kind of schizophrenia that, according to Elsaesser, characterised the "double perspective ... on American society" of earlier German film emigres, in which "admiration and a hypercritical view vie for priority" (113).
Herzog's contemporary, Wim Wenders, enjoyed greater critical success (in Europe at least) with his take on America culture, Paris Texas (1984). In contrast to the positive reception the film enjoyed in Europe, critics in the US were mostly unimpressed by the German director's representation of Texas, though both the distinctive visual look and Ry Cooder's musical motifs have since become paradigms for desert narratives, whether feature films, advertising, or travel programmes. In Out of Rosenheim (US/UK title: Bagdad Cafe, 1987), it was the Mojave desert, previously the location of a lesser-known German film, Vadim Glowna's Dies rigorose Leben (aka Nothing Left to Lose, 1982), that attracted another German director, Percy Adlon. Adlon's film focused on the effect that the arrival of a stereotypical Bavarian housewife (a fastidious German Hausfrau played by Marianne Sagebrecht) has on the relaxed African American lady owner of an isolated truck stop. Out of Rosenheim may have indulged the European idea of an eccentric, offbeat America, but it lacked both the experimentalism and ideas of Herzog's and Wenders's films, and indeed its "uncritical fantasy of multicultural harmony" may explain the film's international success and the critics' lukewarm reception (Mennel and Ongiri 152). Herzog has admitted an interest in what he terms the "middle of nowhere" America, places such as New Holland, Pennsylvania, for example, which provided the location for his droll portrait of the World Championship of Livestock Auctioneers, Ho w Much Wood Would a Woodchuck Chuck (1976). He ascribes this interest to regional authenticity, "self reliance and camaraderie ... the warm open hearts, the down-to-earth people" (Cronin 141), qualities he feels have been lost elsewhere in the States. For Wenders, Texas offers a microcosm of the real America and both directors employ a documentary-like approach to their subjects, accentuating the earthiness, the authenticity of the local people and the locations, which stands in contrast to the stylised, cliched representations typical of more mainstream fare. But while German new wave directors such as Herzog and Wenders opposed the commercialism and sentimentalism of contemporary German cinema and, by extension, the Hollywood films that they partly emulated, they also acknowledged, sometimes grudgingly, a fascination with American culture and filmmaking, especially classical Hollywood and American auteurs--in Herzog's case, D. W. Griffith; for Wenders, Sam Fuller and John Ford. (3) Simultaneously critical of and reverent toward American culture, these European filmmakers arguably produce some of the most interesting portraits, bringing a different aesthetic and political sensibility to their reflections of American life and landscape.
Young, contemporary German directors may acknowledge the influence of the previous generation of filmmakers but they seldom follow the ideological orientation or embrace the formal experiments, diverse as these were, associated with the New German Cinema. Where the older generation shared a "penchant for making foreign countries into a double for the trouble at home," Schorr uses the South both to mirror the problems facing those in the East and to project its protagonist's hopes (Rentschler 615). Written by the director some ten years before the film was finally made, Schultze Gets the Blues was originally set in the West, specifically the area around the industrial Ruhr region, whose population and economy had suffered from the decline of the steel industry. Despite the geographically-specific events, Schorr relocated the action to the East, which region has become the location of choice for filmmakers seeking a depressed, post-industrial backdrop. While few would deny that the socio-economic problems in the former German Democratic Republic (GDR) are wider-reaching than in the West, the local population feel that media representation has made the region synonymous only with economic depression and a particularly unappealing provincialism. Certainly, the East's desperate situation has been central to a large number of films made since the collapse of communism. In some post-unification films, the focus is on a renewed East German identity, with local communities banding together in order to resist predatory Western envoys (either representatives of the state or venture capitalists) and to save their Heimat. Notoriously polysemic, the term Heimat is, despite attempts by those on the left to wrest it away from the sentimental provincialism with which it has been traditionally associated and to broaden its sphere of inclusion as befits a modern and progressive multicultural society, for many Germans bound up with an imagined German past and characterised by nostalgic retrospection. (4) It is not surprising that the sentimental idea of Heimat, which fuses the notion of home with the sense of belonging, has acquired greater cachet given the challenges and frustrations that life after communism has posed for many East Germans. Heimat thus becomes a place of refuge in several post-unification comedies, an idealised, ahistorical community that offers its inhabitants an alternative to the quotidian stresses of post-unification society.
Other films counter this romanticised vision of the Eastern Heimat, focusing instead on unification's fallout--the collapse of the East German community and the dissolution of Heimat. In contrast to those characters seeking to reactivate some dormant community spirit, the individuals in these films display little if any allegiance to their locality but dream of escaping their immediate environment, even if few actually succeed. These fantasised locations clearly represent a preferred community and lifestyle to that experienced in the East. Interestingly, the migration of significant numbers of East Germans to Western Germany has seldom been thematized in post-unification films. (5) Filmmakers contrive instead to present East Germans with more exotic yearnings--Vietnam, Italy, Africa, South America, even Russia. Among the East Germans' many grievances whilst living under state socialism was the restriction on travel. Though now free to travel, the East Germans are depicted as restricted still, the constraints being financial and psychological rather than political, for characters either lack the confidence to leave or find themselves thwarted by hostile locals. In those films that do chart their Eastern subjects' progress through the West German states, the encounters with the world beyond their provincial boundaries are often so negative as to prompt an immediate return home, a conclusion that rejects unification's integrationist rhetoric. The West, which previously functioned as the location onto which many East Germans projected their hopes and aspirations (access to West German television provided a constant if not entirely reliable portal into Western culture), offered a less than satisfactory reality once the physical barriers between the two states had been removed. East Germans travelling in the West are frequently frustrated by their failure to improve their situation and to participate successfully in the West's material culture (since they invariably lack the necessary social and commercial instincts). They often appear alienated by a society whose values they do not understand--an innocence that makes them easy targets for unscrupulous West Germans. Other narratives end with the protagonists about to escape to uncertain futures in far off places (unsatisfactory endings which are doubtless as much a financial consideration given the production costs of providing an exotic backdrop as they are narrative devices).
Schultze Gets the Blues manages to combine both the sombre and the sentimental vision of the East. The Heimat in Schorr's film is undoubtedly one suffering from post-unification stress. The East's transformation into the blossoming landscapes promised by Helmut Kohl, the ebullient architect of German unification, has yet to take place. While the former GDR has undergone some dramatic changes since 1989--nowhere more apparent than in the country's capital, Berlin--many of the provinces have yet to attain the prosperity that it was hoped unification would bring. Schorr's film begins in such a region. Deindustrialized Saxony Anhalt, the setting for the first portion of Schorr's film, is one of the least successful federal states in Eastern Germany. Once the GDR's industrial heartland (home principally to the state's chemical industry and location of many brown coal strip-mines), Saxony Anhalt was also the most polluted region in the GDR, though the closure of many businesses and the environmental policies implemented since unification have reduced pollution levels. Allied to the closure of its businesses is the continuing depopulation, many of its jobless inhabitants (the unemployment rate is just over 20%) having relocated to the West. The film acknowledges the parlous post-industrial East that has occupied many filmmakers since unification. Indeed, the opening scenes in which Schultze and his colleagues leave the local potash mine where they have become redundant suggest that the film may be about to tread familiar ground. But while the protagonist's circumstances are similar to those portrayed in other post-unification narratives, Schorr's film is less concerned with exposing those responsible for the East's ongoing problems (invariably exploitative West Germans, occasionally passive East Germans). Saxony Anhalt may be portrayed as a depressed, almost lifeless environment, the taciturn dialogue, static camerawork and the slow pace of the film accentuating the torpidity of the region, yet these same features might be reworked to offer an index of Heimat virtues that distinguish the East from the fast-paced, competitive, garrulous West. In Schultze, Schorr offers the epitome of a quaintly conventional German, as codified by his dress sense, his allotment garden complete with garden gnomes, and the old-fashioned communist-era decor of his modest bungalow. But Schultze is a conspicuous figure, a throwback. The Heimat that he represents, a combination of a folksy German way of life and a simple socialist culture, is clearly one in decline. Unlike the characters in other post-unification films, Schorr's protagonist shows no desire to rescue his Heimat; nor is there any indication that Schultze is desperate to escape his home. Despite his inauspicious circumstances, Schultze is not burdened by the same kind of despair that drives other characters to seek some escape from their situation. Innately conservative and initially portrayed as a man inexorably tied to his location, Schultze finds it difficult to adapt to change, whether the early retirement into which he and his two friends are forced, or the arrival of a noisy jukebox in their local bar. Schultze's connection to his own Heimatis disrupted quite by accident when he by chance tunes into a late night programme on Louisiana music. Intrigued by the strange, non-German rhythms of a zydeco tune, Schultze develops an interest in the culture of the Bayous--the Cajun Heimat. Though this does mark a life-changing moment, Schultze's initial encounter with an unknown musical tradition is not portrayed as a positive development. Schultze's facial expression on hearing the accordion, his own instrument, employed in such a different musical context, reveals both anxiety and exhilaration. This is only to be expected, given that the accordion is one of the signifiers of his Germanness; as the instrument passed down to him by his father, it also symbolises a deep connection to his Heimat, that he is reluctant to violate (after practising one zydeco tune, he guiltily turns a photograph of his father to the wall; he later seeks medical advice). At his local music club's annual festival, Schultze nervously abandons his traditional repertoire, the polka, in favour of a zydeco number. While his companions dutifully applaud, the reaction from other audience members is far more hostile. Most express their disapproval by remaining silent but a single voice clearly enunciates the reason for their censure and one word resounds around the hall: "Negermusik." This denunciation highlights the obtuse resistance to anything that deviates from what is perceived as authentically German. At the same time, the word chosen is significant not because it suggests that the detractor has some knowledge of the ethnic provenance of that particular musical tradition (it is unlikely that he is aware of the Creole aspects of its heritage) but rather because in seeking to clarify Schultze's affront the audience member grasps for a description that fully identifies the music as other; and, in the context of the region's monoculture (in contrast to other European countries, there are very few Africans in Eastern Germany), that word is "Negermusik." (6) Though the word Neger is not uncommon in Germany, its use here is doubtless a reference to the designation given to jazz and blues by the National Socialists and thus implies a common link between modern-day xenophobic attitudes and the extremism of the thirties and forties, a connection that was frequently made (invariably by those in the West) following the widely publicised right wing attacks that have taken place in the East since unification. (7) The local reaction to Schultze's musical impulsiveness confirms his apartness from an exclusionary Heimat "rooted in that intolerance of difference, that fear of the 'other'" (Morley and Robins 26). For Schultze, it may be that Heimat is only to be found elsewhere--among the "other."
Unlike his friend, who dreams that his son might one day make his fortune in competitive bike trials in the US and imagines the material benefits of life there, Schultze shows no interest in the popular imaginary of the United States as the land of endless opportunities that has long characterised the Europeans' view across the Atlantic. His reasons for wishing to visit the South are prompted ostensibly by the fascination for a musical style that employs his instrument in an unfamiliar fashion and a subsequent interest in the culture that produced it. But Schultze's interest in the vernacular music of Louisiana (Schorr's films conflates cajun and zydeco genres, a not unusual generalisation) is arguably stimulated by the apparent authenticity of the music. Given the perceived erosion of an East German distinctiveness that is a consequence of the region's absorption into a global market, Schultze's identification with the South and, specifically, with Louisiana, may represent a compensatory fantasy. If globalisation, with its implied threat to regional particularism, has made the "anxiety over authentic cultural identity" more acute, such wish projections are only to be expected (Cheng 3). More unusual is that the quest for authenticity should lead to the United States, which is regularly, if erroneously, represented as culturally vacuous and somehow less authentic than other cultures and societies. But Schultze is drawn specifically to the South, a region somehow more authentic than the North, a distinction that those in the Southern states are keen to maintain (Ayers 66). (8) This version of itself is not ideal, for it risks prolonging other prejudices, but it is clearly preferable to the unequivocally negative stereotypes with which the region and culture have so long been associated. The supposed authenticity of the South is implicated in the region's reputation as the nation's rural other, a reputation that in reality belies its increasingly urban, industrially developed profile. For Madhu Dubey, the South's "status as a hinterland left behind by uneven national processes of modernization bolsters contemporary claims that the South constitutes an 'elsewhere' to a fully globalized capitalist system" (352). Thus it is a romanticized backwater, a retreat from the exigencies of modern (Northern) life.
While films set in the South have frequently exploited the region's rurality as a key to its Southern chauvinism, its rusticity is also viewed positively. Celebrated as the more authentic America, images of the South are, for example, used by advertisers keen to associate their products--including those with a global profile--with local tradition and with the region's putative gentility. The sleepy down home community that frequently appears in the marketing for Jack Daniel's, for example, or, as encapsulated in the ebullient figure head for Kentucky Fried Chicken, contribute to the South's exceptionalism. Eastern Germany has been treated in a similarly paradoxical manner. Though the region has on occasion been portrayed as a morally and politically dubious province since unification, it has also come to represent the more traditional Germany. According to this version of the East, cobbled streets and ramshackle buildings are not evidence of the GDR's infrastructural neglect, but markers of tradition, the past's genuine articles. The East Germans' much-discussed Ostalgde, a portmanteau of Ost (East) and Nostalgie (nostalgia), indicates a nostalgic turn of a rather different kind that focuses on a carefully depoliticized socialist past. While the socio-political reasons behind the (partly) ironic commodification of communism are different from those behind the marketing of Southern goods, both cultures are bound up within a complex, often problematic set of referents. Obvious examples in the case of American advertising include the figurehead for the Uncle Ben's brand (originally rice). The character has long connoted an established house servant/slave, though the company tried to wrest the brand away from this dubious heritage through an advertising campaign which announced Uncle Ben's promotion to Chairman in March 2007 (roughly a year after KFC's Harlan Sanders's trademark white suit had been obscured by a red apron, a makeover intended to emphasise the character's real cooking experience and perhaps to diminish any negative reading of his antebellum association, and almost twenty years since Aunt Jemima's sartorial makeover). A more regionally specific example is the transformation of Cajun from its original pejorative meaning to an acceptable, commercially valuable designation which, when employed by publishers of cook books (with titles such as Louisiana Real & Rustic and In a Cajun Kitchen: Authentic Cajun Recipes and Stories from a Family Farm on the Bayou), frequently connotes a genuine and distinct culture and tradition that has an obvious appeal in our postmodern age.
The nostalgia that often underpins proclamations of regional distinctiveness necessarily disregards certain realities. With a few exceptions modern nostalgia for the Old South tends, for example, to avoid any mention of the period's racial segregation; likewise, the nostalgia for the East German past generally amplifies personal memory over historical truths. The resurrection of East German products since the collapse of the GDR is partly explained by canny advertising strategies, which take advantage of local consumer loyalty (often misplaced since many of these authentic Eastern products are now owned by Western companies), and of course the nostalgia for a past that is borne of the disappointments of the present (Bach 551). The rediscovery of these old products may be regarded as a bilateral ideological protest, a commitment to supporting the local over the global as well as a snub to Western (and not just West German) consumer culture. But as with the commodification of Southern culture, the new marketing of these local goods is not intended solely for local shoppers. The East German products may be important to the East Germans' recalibrated identity, but West Germans, too, buy these goods, albeit for different reasons. Some are motivated by the desire to assist the East German economy. Supermarkets, for example, frequently label products as from the "New Federal States." But the appeal of these products lies also in the contemporary fascination with the past, and though it is the communist past that is referenced, it is a past that has been carefully rebranded. The ideological foundations that underpinned the former state and permitted its iniquities have been removed in order to allow for the marketing and celebration of the GDR as a simpler, more straightforward time, one that even those who did not experience it may regard with some affection.
The parallels between the South and Eastern Germany go beyond the similar projections of cosy fantasy and nostalgic remarketing of the regions. (9) Drawing on post-structural theory, David Jansson suggests that "the ongoing scrutiny experienced by the South may reflect the continuing need to reproduce the national identity through denoting difference between the imagined spaces of 'America' and 'the South'" (National Identities 270; see also Cobb). Elsewhere, Jansson maintains that "representations of the South as backward, intolerant, poor, racist, and premodern allow a national identity to be produced that claims the opposite characteristics as its own; thus the archetypal American is progressive, tolerant, prosperous, enlightened, and modern" ("Internal" 311). This binarism finds its parallel in the inter-German discourse both before and since unification. While each of the German states claimed at various times to represent the true Germany and accused the other of being little more than a Soviet or Western pawn, there was also a kind of interdependence in the states' self-understanding. Otto Reinhold, one of the East German regime's leading ideologues, correctly observed that the GDR's right to exist was only possible if it continued to stress its differences to its Western neighbour (Gransow and Jarausch 36). Such Cold War rhetoric no longer exists, but Germans in the East and West still often feel the need to stress their dissimilarity to one another, an assertion of difference that has more to do with the negative consequences associated with unification (for those in the East a sense of inequality; for those in the West, the feeling that unification has had a deleterious effect on their once secure economy and democratic credentials) than with ideological orientation.
The South's reputation in the American national imaginary bears close resemblance, too, to East Germany's standing since unification. Attitudes towards the southern states have long been negative, and for many Northerners the region comprises "a vast saucer of unpleasant associations"(Ayers 63). (10) Just as the South is often regarded as "America's opposite, its negative image, its evil twin," the German East has come to be characterised as the Federal Republic's poor half, the needy region which requires both supervision and support from the more civilised Western states (Griffin 7). The East Germans' alleged indolence, xenophobia and backwardness are set up in opposition to the core values of the Federal Republic, its industriousness, multiculturalism and progressiveness--as crudely simplified as that may be. For the sceptics, the East Germans' proclivity for assaulting (and on occasion murdering) outsiders--with members of the ethnic minorities the usual targets--together with the region's poor economic performance, apparently exacerbated by the locals' lack of commitment and application tarnishes and threatens to undo the West Germans' post-war reputation as one of the model liberal welfare states. While the Western states have also experienced an economic downturn and are certainly not free of social problems such as racism, the perception is that the media coverage of these issues depends on the geographical location (Horschelmann 192). Certainly, East Germans consider the media's representation of the East to have exacerbated the negative view of the region. West Germans, who are still disinclined to visit the East, are more likely to be more influenced by media coverage of the region than are the East Germans, many of whom have at least some first-hand experience of the West. Seen in this context, the media version of the East, like the images of the South which according to John Shelton Reed inform most Northerners' impressions, plays a crucial role in defining how the regions are imagined (92).
The representation of the Eastern and Southern communities in Schultze Gets the Blues differs from most customary accounts. Just as Schorr's depiction of Saxony Anhalt is, with its juxtaposition of Heimat and post-industrial features, atypical, his representation of America is one that resists conventional images and behaviour, an aversion to stereotypes that is clear from early scenes set in the US. Having accepted an ambassadorial role, according to which he will represent his hometown at the annual "Wurstfest" festival in New Braunfels, Texas, Schultze arrives at the (real life) celebrations and is startled by the apparent German-ness of the place. (11) The musical entertainment on offer at the "Wurstfest," where the button accordion functions as an instrument of "novelty and nostalgia," provides a further disappointment (Leary 343). It is ironic, of course, that Schultze, who for German audiences will figure as an archetypal provincial German, is, among the crowds dressed in Bavarian costumes, the odd one out, the one character who, amid this strange spectacle of hyphenated German-Americans in Lederhosen performing old-fashioned polkas, appears to be the least German. Though depicted as a rather garish simulacrum of German culture--both filmmaker and actor admitted to having found the experience a bizarre one, and noted that they did not feel sufficiently German at the event--the portrayal of the "Wurstfest" is not patronizing (Willmann). While the show is doubtless entertaining (to German audiences in particular), its anachronisms are not the issue. More important is Schultze's reaction to the occasion. Though the rather stolid Schultze does not articulate his precise feelings, one can surmise that the disappointment he feels has to do with his expectations for a way of life that he, like the characters in Stroszeck, had imagined differently. Schultze's circumstances are different from those of Herzog's protagonists but they have in common a desire to escape an environment in which they feel variously alienated and victimised. In Stroszeck's case, it is the difficulty of adapting to life after jail; in Schultze's case, the dual problems of adjusting to retirement and to unification. To him, America is initially disappointing not because it fails to deliver the glamorous society imagined by so many non-Americans--Schultze does not after all show any interest in this version of the United States--but because of its uncanny resemblance to the place he has sought to escape. Texas is surely not commonly imagined as a venue for the popular German card game Skat, nor associated with German food and drink. Even the grey, damp weather fails to correspond with the popular notion of the hot Texan sun and is more reminiscent of the overcast sky in Schultze's German home. For its organisers and supporters, the "Wurstfest" may provide a forum in which German-Americans can celebrate and perform their cultural distinctiveness but to Schultze such an event will only look overcoded and inauthentic (it is unlikely that a music festival in Germany would feature bands named "Alpenfest" or "Sauerkrauts").
Unable to appreciate the postmodern incongruity of this heritage event, Schultze leaves without performing his scheduled rendition and goes in search of the music and culture that first drew him to the region. Displaying the kind of resourcefulness with which East Germans are frequently associated in post-unification film, something that compensates for their imputed lack of initiative and acumen, Schultze acquires a boat and heads deeper South towards Louisiana in search of the music and the place of which he has long dreamt. Where more commercially-minded directors might have allowed the emotional resonance of this journey to inform the visual record of Schultze's travels, Schorr maintains his laconic, dispassionate style. The portrayal of the Bayous is hardly more romantic or beguiling than the previous images of Texas or Saxony-Anhalt. The swamps and creeks commonly used as an exotic backdrop for films set in the region are not the first impression that the viewer has. Instead, Schultze navigates his simple boat across the vast stretch of water near Port Arthur, where he narrowly avoids colliding with an enormous container ship. These initial scenes clearly do not conform to any romanticised touristic notions. With the haulage ships and the cluster of towers which are part of the oil refinery that stands on the far shore, the Gulf, associated with industry rather than leisure, serves as a reminder of Schultze's industrial hometown. There, too, any poetic idea of the local waterway, the river Saale, is compromised by the freight boats that pass along it and by the hulking railway bridge from which Schultze and his colleagues cast their fishing lines. When Schultze lands on the shore of an out-of-season holiday resort on the Gulf, the impression of the location is one of a shabby neighbourhood. Most of the homes are closed up; some bear the marks of the tornado that had raged through the area prior to filming and the atmosphere is as bleak and lifeless as that in Schultze's hometown. The effect of this is once again to challenge audiences' preconceptions of the South as an exotic location and Schorr uses a somewhat crude device in order to emphasise the difference between the imagined South and its reality: at various moments in his journey, the scene switches back to Germany and to Schultze's erstwhile colleagues. The two dour figures imagine their friend's progress and their brusque conversations give voice to the usual opinions about America, for them a homogenous construct and not referenced in terms of North or South, but rather of its limitless possibilities ("the land of milk and honey" as one notes)--opinions which, of course, stand in direct contrast to Schultze's experiences in the South. Thus, as well as resisting the archetypal images of the South, whether the Old South or the mythical South, Schultze Gets the Blues repeatedly counters the outsiders' utopian view of America. This is not to suggest that Schorr's film is an obvious critique of American culture but rather a challenge to stereotypes and prevailing attitudes. Just as the provincial East German Heimat is normalised in the first half of the film, so too is the American South viewed dispassionately. Indeed, so averse was Schorr to standard visual and cultural references that he made efforts to avoid including even cars and traffic in the portion of the film set in the US, arguing (on the DVD voiceover) that these details would only serve to distract the viewer and, presumably, align Schorr's America with that of mainstream representation.
Authenticity, then, is central to Schorr's approach. Having introduced the artificial environment of the "Wurstfest," he seeks to engage with an authentic Texas and later Louisiana culture. For the most part, the director does this through the inclusion of real people whom he and his film crew encountered and invited to be in the film. The scene showing men playing dominos in a quiet Texan bar for example offers a glimpse into real Texan life whilst also underlining the similarities between life in provincial Texas and Eastern Germany. In another scene, Schultze, drawn by the strains of an authentic Cajun melody, leaves his riverside camp to discover the fiddle's whereabouts and happens upon a small community hall where a dance is in progress. Ironically, the portly German does not look as out of place in this remote Louisianan setting as he did in the ostensibly "German" environment of New Braunfels. However, his lack of English (and French) prevents him from being able to engage with the local people. In a poignant scene, he misunderstands his dancing partner's offer to buy him a drink and, embarrassed, leaves before she returns from the bar. In keeping with the general mood of the film, Schorr holds the poignancy in check by unusually tolerant direction, which allows the dancers--again, not actors but real, local people--to stare directly at the camera. This is less an instance of generic experimentation, mixing the real and the fictional, than a wish for verisimilitude. Similar stylistic considerations are evident in other post-unification films. There too, the documentary techniques are employed within conventional narrative structures in order to imbue the films with greater authenticity, a quality that was felt to be lacking in many of the representations of Eastern Germany which tended towards the melodramatic or the comic.
Apart from some postcards that he sends to his two former workmates, Schultze carries none of the usual tourist kit, no cameras or souvenirs. Though he stares wide-eyed as he steers his vague course through the various backwaters, he conforms to neither the standard image of the tourist nor the adventurer striking out on his own. He does not follow what Wiley refers to as the "great Occidental tradition of perceiving wetlands as exotic and alluring"; nor does he engage with the "virtual wilderness" offered by a host of swamp tours. His is not a temporary fascination for another culture before returning home but a search for something more tangible and authentic, one driven by a desire to participate in, or at least to witness, a culture which may offer him an ersatz Heimat (Wiley 126).
At several stages Schultze comes tantalisingly close to connecting with people who might provide entry into the host community but his deficient language skills repeatedly prevent him from engaging with the culture and with people who he has travelled so far to meet. Coming across the Bobby Jones Czech Band, which specialises in "Texas style Czech polkas and waltzses [sic], old time Country music, and Cajun music" (a hybrid musical profile that is as good an example of the region's diversity as any), Schultze is persuaded to try a drop of their vodka and, his confidence thus fuelled, he unsuccessfully attempts to make conversation in Russian, once the lingua franca of the Eastern Bloc, before continuing on his way. Throughout the film, Schultze appears to be drawn to exotic figures, to people who are utterly unlike him. This is apparent first with the arrival of a new barmaid at his local bar in Saxony Anhalt, a Hispanophile whose love of flamenco and affected Spanish mannerisms runs counter to the bar's drab surroundings. His first contact with an American takes place in the hot tub outside his hotel, a mock Alpine cottage in Texas. Schultze is initially embarrassed to find a woman already enjoying the warm water and turns to leave but is invited to share the experience and subsequently enjoys a rather faltering conversation with the cheerful African American woman. Conversely, Schorr's protagonist is least confident when among those people, who, superficially at least, seem most like him, whether the German-Americans gathered at the Texan festival, the elderly men playing cards at the bar, or the mature audience enjoying the Cajun dance night in Louisiana. It is only when Schultze meets Aretha, an African American woman who lives with her daughter on a secluded houseboat in the Bayous, that he develops something like a true rapport. (12) This despite the fact that the woman in question is, of all the people he meets during his travels, the least like Schultze (though the most likeable). It is ironic, too, that it is here on the floating, slightly unsteady residence that the German traveller for the first time finds some anchorage, a connection to an authentic Heimat where, in spite of the language barriers, he feels at ease. In Aretha, Schultze discovers a true "other," a manifestation perhaps of the authentic culture and replacement Heimat for which he has been searching. His host indulges his interest in Louisiana culture. Schultze eats plates of catfish and shrimp stew; he sits on the roof of the houseboat and listens to the cicadas; and, most importantly, hears live performances of the music that first drew him to Louisiana. The idyllic Heimat Schultze finds is one he is only briefly permitted to savour. Ever resistant to predictable plot conventions, Schorr ends his film not with Schultze's new life about to begin but with his death, hastened, if not prompted, by his first real encounter with Zydeco. His passing is rendered symbolically through the dying of both the light and the music: clouds obscure the moon; the image of Schulzte asleep in a chair on the houseboat's roof is intercut with a silent scene of the club he has visited where silhouetted figures dance to the Zydeco band. His funeral may establish Germany as his final resting place but the jazz band that accompanies the mourners, including his Southern host, maintains his connection with the South.
The desire to present Schultze's encounters with the South as an authentic, veracious portrait is evident in Schorr's formal and aesthetic approach to a film that is part travelogue, part documentary, part narrative. Like his protagonist, Schorr strives to capture the authenticity of the Southern states, yet he shows little interest in the social or political context of the people they meet along the way, or in highlighting the foibles or shortcomings of that society. Schultze Gets the Blues is therefore neither a critical exploration of post-unification Germany nor a film that seeks to engage directly with any Southern (or
Eastern) problems. (13) Schultze's kinship with his host might be rooted in the similarity of their circumstances, but such comparison is ultimately superficial and ignores the level of disenfranchisement in the South, especially as experienced by its African American community (or the real discrimination facing Germany's real outsiders, whether Vietnamese immigrants or Balkan refugees). (14) Where Schorr's film does challenge is in its method of representation. Not only does it eschew the sentimentalism of many mainstream forays into the region, it also refuses to exploit the region's execrable reputation as an inhospitable environment peopled by a backward, often belligerent folk and to reinforce the version of the South as a strange land of grotesques and eccentrics. Consistent with his representation of Eastern Germany, Schorr seeks to counter well-worn images and lazy prejudices, opting for a view from below--that is, one that privileges the ordinary and not the extraordinary. For just as Schorr acknowledges but underplays the East German signifiers, he wishes to divest the South finally of the limiting references with which it has been so long associated.
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University of Sheffield
(1) Beginning with D. W. Griffith's The Birch of a Nation (1915), cinema came to play an important role in sustaining a mythology of the South as a place that was for much of the twentieth century the North's "other." By the 1950s, the South had, according to Allison Graham, "become a celluloid institution.... The region had been mapped by a century of fabulists, and Hollywood had been only too willing to claim squatters' rights within its moss-draped borders" (4).
(2) Both Deliverance (John Boorman, 1972) and Southern Comfort (Walter Hill, 1981) offer a nightmarish vision of backwoods Southern (Georgian and Louisianan respectively) culture, where the locals demonstrate their resistance to Northern outsiders in the most brutal terms imaginable. The image of the South has fluctuated in recent decades, but the "cretinous redneck" Graham identifies has remained a malevolent stock figure in features such as The Gift (Sam Raimi, 2000) and particularly in contemporary television, in series such as NBC's American Gothic, Fox's Prison Break (the character T-Bag, a composite of all the worst Southern stereotypes: a violent, sexually deviant white supremacist, born of incest and rape) and ABC's Lost (Sawyer, an immoral Texan grifter and self-declared redneck). However, Hollywood's more recent Southern excursions indicate a willingness to steer away from crude characterizations and stock Southern themes such as racism and slavery, and films by actors and directors such as Billy Bob Thornton (Sling Blade, 1996) and Robert Duvall (The Apostle, 1997) are considered to have provided some balance to the limited and limiting representations that had long been the norm (Graham 182).
(3) One might include Hartmut Bitomsky, whose documentary High way 40. Reise in Amerika (1981) is equally concerned with the ordinary and the everyday.
(4) Neither of the usual translations, home or homeland, adequately conveys the complex meanings and emotional investment associated with the term in German. Berdahl's explanation of Heimat as a "discourse of belonging in which identity becomes grounded in place" is as good an explanation as any (82).
(5) An exception to this is Rainer Simon's Fernes Land Pa-isch (1993; released 2000) in which the estranged teenage protagonist discovers Hamburg (in the West) to be as grim a place as his Saxony home. One might also consider the first major unification film, the road comedy Go, Trabi, Go (Peter Timm, 1992), which follows an endearingly unsophisticated East German family, whose brief stay in West Germany whilst en route to Italy is mostly an unhappy and awkward experience. For more on post-unification films see Nick Hodgin, Screening the East.
(6) The racist comment is all the more ironic given that it was nineteenth century German immigrants who first brought the accordion to the region (Lichtenstein and Dankner 197). The accordion's connection with European (including German) immigrants in the US is also central to E. Annie Proulx's Accordion Crimes.
(7) The word was not traditionally used as a derogatory term in Germany, though recent debates suggest that it is no longer deemed acceptable because of its phonetic similarity to the English "nigger."
(8) See also Carlton (42). It is worth noting that the Louisiana region had already begun to attract Francophone visitors interested in the authentic Cajun experience in the seventies and that the outsiders' curiosity stimulated the indigenous people's own interest in a Cajun distinctiveness (Esman 451-67).
(9) See Christine Gerhardt, who finds that East German and Southern literature share a tendency to "draw definitional certainty from their perception by the respective dominant culture" (319). Elsewhere, scholars have examined the influence of writers such as Faulkner on post-war German literature; see for example, Nicolaisen.
(10) Some recent research would suggest that this view of the South is not entirely reasonable. The tendency to discuss slavery as a Southern and not a Northern matter is, for example, challenged by Farrow, Lang, and Frank.
(11) The "Wurstfest" is, according to the official website, a "Ten Day Salute to Sausage," a "unique celebration rich in German culture and full of Texas fun." This annual event has grown in size since its inception in 1961, making it one of the largest festivals in the United States; it hosts 100,000 visitors annually.
(12) The viewer has no further information regarding Aretha's life, that is her social, marital status or economic status. But one assumes that, as with Adlon's film, the director intends that "a clear equation is set up between the German and the marginalized of U.S. society" (Davidson 98).
(13) As early as the twenties, racism as a contemporary issue had been explored by filmmakers like Oscar Micheaux. The forties witnessed a cycle of films that addressed contemporary racism in the South; one of the most accomplished of these was Intruder in the Dust (Clarence Brown, 1949). Better known are the social message films that were later produced by Hollywood with liberals such as Norman Jewison (In the Heat of the Night, 1968), Stanley Kramer (The Defiant Ones, 1958) and Roger Corman (The Intruder, 1962) contributing thoughtful, well-regarded films. Racism as a Southern issue has continued to prompt modern day filmmakers resulting in films such as Paris Trout (Stephen Gyllenhaal, 1991), Mississippi Burning (Alan Parker, 1988), Ghosts of Mississippi (aka Ghosts from the Past, Rob Reiner, 1996), Rosewood (John Singleton, 1997) and Manderlay(2005), Lars von Trier's Brechtian experiment. The tendency has been to examine racism from a distance, rather than to investigate racism in modern-day American society. This retrospective view of racism is evident in films such as Robert Mulligan's To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), Sidney J. Furie's biopic, Lady Sings the Blues (1972), Stephen Spielberg's adaptation of Alice Walker's novel, The Color Purple (1985).
(14) The poverty suffered by some of the Eastern population is hardly comparable with that of many African Americans in the South, the extent of whose material privation was made clear in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. A sober assessment of the health implications for the African American community in the South is to be found in Atkins and Moy.
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|Title Annotation:||SPECIAL ISSUE: THE SOUTH FILM|
|Publication:||The Mississippi Quarterly|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2010|
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