“…there seems to be some sort of secret anarchic urge within me to see the monsters set loose and rampantly reclaim what’s theirs, to witness them bringing back some wonder and excitement into a world so controlled by order and reason that it at times threatens to suffocate all sense of joy and opportunity.”–Till Kleinert
DIRECTED BY: Till Kleinert
FEATURING: Michel Diercks,
PLOT: Young policeman Jakob deals with a wolf menacing his rural east German village by placing bags of butcher scraps in the woods, hoping to lure the predator away from inhabited areas. One night he receives a mysterious package which he is instructed to deliver to an abandoned house; inside the home is a man in a dress who unwraps the package to reveal a samurai’s katana. The transvestite then runs into the night, where he embarks on a campaign of murder and mayhem to which Jakob must put an end.
- Der Samurai is Till Kleinert’s directorial debut, and his graduation project for the German Film and Television Academy.
- The film was denied a government funding grant because it was deemed “incompatible with the taste guidelines of German public television.” Much of the budget was instead raised through a crowdfunding campaign.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: When your movie stars a blond-haired samurai in a floor length backless white party dress, you have a good idea what the indelible image is going to be.
THREE WEIRD THINGS: Transvestite samurai; flamingo punch; explosive decapitation
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Exploring the weirdness in queerness, Der Samurai is a primal confrontation with the Other, embodied in the person of a wolf man come to life as a dress-wearing, sword-wielding maniac who taunts a repressed country policeman into a confrontation with his own desires.
Original trailer for Der Samurai
COMMENTS: Jakob’s long duel with a mysterious cross-dressing samurai takes place over the course of a single night, when his respectable country town is (or should be) sleeping. It opens in the lucid daylight of reality, with the young public servant hanging out meat meant to lure a nuisance wolf away from the trash cans and pet of the good people of the village. But when night falls, Jakob receives a strange beckoning phone call, and as the darkness deepens the movie gets weirder and weirder; eventually, he finds himself running through a model of his own town, and decapitated heads give him advice. With the coming of the dawn, the rampaging swordsman loses his power, and all seems to be righted for a moment. But the wolf still prowls on the edges of town…
For an idea as bizarre as Der Samurai to have any chance of succeeding, it needed an actor of feral vitality in the title role. Pit Bukowski fits the bill perfectly. With his wild blonde hair and even wilder eyes, Bukoswki looks like a fairy-tale forest spirit taken human form to venture into town for a night of mischief. His face is lumpy and masculine, simultaneously repulsive and attractive. Slathered with lipstick and draped in a loose sheath of virgin white, he is crudely sensual, arousing conflicting feelings. Crouching on a railing, sword dangling, the samurai inhabits the night with an easy animal grace. Yet in conversation with Jakob he shows psychological cunning equal to his physical prowess. His verbal feints toy with the policeman’s repressed desires like a cat’s paws batting a mouse. He is man and beast, man and woman, mixed in one. His calm expressions and sibilant threats suggest the reserve of a confident predator conserving his energy for the strike. His barely-contained barbarian energy and puffy, too-sensuous features immediately suggest that Bukowski is a long-lost descendant of. (Kleinert hints that Bukowski was difficult on set and challenging to direct, providing further support for the Kinski love-grandchild theory). Bukowski’s performance may not be the greatest of 2014, but in terms of providing the movie with exactly the presence necessary for its success, few matched it.
Der Samurai‘s plot suggests an obvious, and accurate, interpretation: the samurai who rampages through the conservative town with his powerful phallic katana is the materialization of Jakob’s repressed homosexual desires. Jakob has taken a job as the village’s junior policeman, a role that puts him in opposition to his rowdy peers, but allows him the illusion of respectability, control and order. Jakob seeks to restrain disorderly conduct, but he is powerless before the ravenous samurai, whom chains will not hold. The samurai’s feminine apparel is a social embarrassment, because he is no lady; yet he is completely unselfconscious and confident in his false skin. Should a gang of homophobic youngsters accost him on the street, he simply decapitates the lot, as easily as if he’s flicking ants off the hem of his skirt. It’s a repressed revenge fantasy for Jakob, for whom the youths have no respect. The swordsman has an intimate knowledge of Jakob’s interior life, which he uses to taunt the cop into breaking his own social rules. “I pictured you differently… bolder,” says the samurai. He guides the policeman to visualize a fantasy date at a party. The samurai is equally happy to goad him into combat as into dance, however; just so long as Jakob breaks his reserve, gets physical, unsheathes his sword. The unexpected, bizarre finale is an explosion of repressed physicality, a combination of combat, ejaculation, and fireworks celebration.
If Der Samurai is read merely as a literal, linear allegory for a man’s repressed homosexuality, criticisms emerge. Some may object to depicting homosexuals as predators. The samurai remains Jakob’s antagonist to the end, and so we might conclude that the moral is that he will be only happy when he conquers his repressed sexuality, rather than embraces it. But Der Samurai is not just a parochial gay feature about coming out. The fears it explores disquiet heterosexuals, too, and the movie can be enjoyed as a weird horror by those who ignore (or somehow overlook) the queer subtext. Der Samurai identifies eroticism with chaos. The sexually ambiguous samurai is a disruption, and a mystery. No literal in-story explanation is offered for his existence. His behavior is unpredictable but always violent, escalating from sly threats to vandalism to homicide. He is identified with the wolf from the outskirts of town; sometimes their identities literally flicker back and forth. He is a wild spirit trespassing in the straight-laced hamlet, wreaking havoc in his wake. The lupine imagery links this story to old Germanic fairy tales, to fears of beasts lurking on the edges of civilization, who are really beasts lurking on the edges of our own consciousness. The samurai is inscrutable and definitively Other, and his power seems limitless; whether he is winning or losing a particular confrontation with Jakob, he is always the one in control. He is whatever in ourselves we all secretly want to be, but fear to become.
Till Kleinert’s debut is a technically accomplished independent feature. Almost all of the film has been shot at night, giving the proceedings an assuredly eerie, dreamlike feeling that never turns unduly murky. The simple effects are seamlessly integrated into the story, and the finished product has a polished look that belies both the makers’ experience and budget. Add in the remarkable performance by Bukowski, a script that drips with heartfelt strangeness, and a final scene that will leave you shaking your head in giddy disbelief and you have a dark fairy tale that is a near perfect synthesis of modern preoccupations and ancient fears.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Combining stifling parochialism with surreal escapism, writer/director Till Kleinert grounds brutally unhinged flights of fancy in an aching sadness that never rings false.”–Anton Bitel, Grolsch Film Works (festival screening)
DER SAMURAI | A Nightmarish Queer Thriller Written & Directed by Till Kleinert – Production blog for the film; stopped updating once the shooting completed, but includes storyboards and other goodies
Der Samurai – Artsploitation Films – The American distributor’s page, with trailer, basic credits, and links to interviews and reviews
IMDB LINK: Der Samurai (2014)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
Der Samurai | Indiegogo – There is a lot of interesting information on the crowdfunding pitch page, including a director’s statement and video
DER SAMURAI Stars and Director interview – 2014 Tribeca Film Festival – Video interview by Dread Central with director Kleinert and stars Bukowski and Diercks
DVD INFO: Although it played the international film festival circuit, Der Samurai never got a theatrical release outside of Germany. Artsploitation Films gives it a fine home video release nonetheless. The DVD (buy) includes the trailer and an informative commentary with director Kleinert and producer Linus de Paoli. The ten minute making-of featurette is unusual; there is no traditional narration, just a series of still and clips with commentary presented in subtitles. It works. There is also a short interview with Kleinert printed on the inside of the removable DVD sleeve.
A Blu-ray (buy) is available with the same features.
Der Samurai is also available for purchase or rental on-demand (buy or rent). Purists beware, though: per customer reviews, Amazon’s version includes some minor but senseless censorship, with a bit of nudity digitally obscured.