Der Samurai (2014) d.Till Kleinert (Germany)
Police officer Jakob (Michel Diercks) feels trapped in the small rural village he reluctantly calls home. Nights are spent playing cards with his dementia-affected grandmother, days are spent patrolling the sleepy burg where he commands no respect from the local troublemakers. His only duty of personal significance consists of carting bags of meat out to the woods in an attempt to keep a newly reported wolf from drifting too close to town. He’s also a deeply, deeply closeted homosexual, so mortified at the potential disapproval of the locals that he lives in a perpetual state of social catatonia. The arrival of a mysterious package at the police station – and a subsequent phone call from its owner – sends Jakob in pursuit of a flamboyant, well-muscled transvestite psychopath (Pit Bukowski), the mirror image of the young lawman’s isolated existence, an existence that will likely never survive the night.
It’s clear that writer/director Kleinert is less interested in striking terror in our hearts than he is in stimulating our aesthetic senses and mental synapses, but he’s also no slouch in building tension and providing release. The phrase “art-house horror” gets tossed around handily these days, but rarely has it seemed as applicable. The lyrical elegance of Martin Hanslmayr’s skilled and swirling cinematography highlights the forest greens as eloquently as the sanguinary exploits of our blonde Katana-wielding figure in white. The overall production design is so well-realized, consciously commanding attention without glossiness for its own glossy sake, that a sense of trust is quickly established between the creative team and the viewer, allowing us to easily connect to the heightened dramatic and thematic elements to follow.
Jakob’s defenses rise and fall as he trails and confronts The Samurai; he is both pursuer and pursued, deeply ambivalent about a quarry he is equally attracted to and repulsed by. I won’t begin to pretend to know or understand Kleinert’s specific sexual politics or statements, but he definitely isn’t shy about starting the conversation, and anyone willing to engage with the film cannot help but be drawn in. This is not a passive artistic statement, but a challenge – just as The Samurai encourages Jakob – to dance the dance, to partner and share, to give and take, to lose our heads (literally and/or figuratively) and achieve freedom for our inner selves.
Many reviewers have commented on the occasionally overwhelming symbolism; anyone who misses out on Jakob’s unspoken sexual identity struggles (or how his inner id is represented by The Samurai or the wolf’s inherent wildness representing the young man’s burgeoning thirst for an authentic life or…) is either half-asleep or running back and forth to the refreshment stand.
Even so, I’m willing to embrace and/or endure the rampant onscreen metaphors since no one ever comes right out and utters the subtext aloud, entrusting viewers to interpret for themselves. Less easy to swallow are the hammer-heavy pop song musical cues, a bit too on-the-snout for my tastes. (The closing slo-mo image of Jakob charging the camera will be a challenging one for viewers with its naked sentiment, especially those not watching in solemn solitude; the other unintentional laughter bait being the awkwardly intimate rhythmic duel between the Samurai and Jakob.)
But none of this high-minded material would stay afloat were it not for the strength of the central performances. Diercks peels back layer after layer, evolving from frustrated, insecure pretender to worthy adversary, sloughing off conceits of “decency” and “responsible citizen” in favor of an authentic life lived fully, even at the price of his social acceptance and/or sanity. Bukowski is a tightly coiled force of nature, exuding danger and sensuality with every physical gesture, every facial expression. With scarred upper lip spreading wide over a lipstick-accented smile, the actor oozes charisma and charm throughout; rather than an androgynous entity with both sexes muted, his masculinity burns brightly through his female trappings. (The two performers are perfectly paired in this respect, with the softer, sensitive Diercks hiding behind his badge and uniform.)
As impressive as the performances and technical elements are, what sets Der Samurai apart is its adroit tweaking of convention in the final reel. What seems to be drifting cozily into now-familiar Fight Club terrain, where our protagonist and antagonist are revealed to be one and the same, is upended by an impressive thwarting of expectations. At the moment where Jakob’s fellow officers arrive on the scene, where he has picked up the sword and is holding it in a threatening manner over The Samurai, as they tell him to “Drop the weapon!”, we KNOW what the ensuing reverse shot will be: The camera will rise to follow Jakob’s gaze and he/we will see that he’s all alone. There never was a Samurai. He has created this monstrous alter ego to allow his id to run free, to attack those he despises for their close-mindedness. Jakob will be accused of the Samurai’s violent crimes, but it’s a worthy price for the shedding of his social mask. We’re totally prepared for the completely unsurprising twist ending...
...then it’s revealed that, no, The Samurai is real. The other cops can see him. They handcuff him and throw him in the back of the squad car to face justice, with Jakob riding behind in a follower.
At this point, our brains are exploding. “What do you mean they’re not the same person???” Everything that has gone before has pointed in that direction, and even though it’s what savvy viewers have predicted for the last 45 minutes (whilst patting ourselves on the back for being so observant and cinematically well-versed), we’re prepared to accept the reveal. Kleinert has delivered a quality, well-produced character study that logistically holds up, augmented by occasional lashings of gore. The last thing we expect is that the events playing out before us are to be taken at face value, and yet, this seems to be the case. It’s a spectacularly ballsy twist-on-a-twist, one that will leave more than a few scratching their heads and eager to discuss various interpretations as the final credits roll.
Yes, it’s possible that for the last 15 minutes, we’re in High Tension’s “unreliable narrator” land, where what we’re seeing is ABSOLUTELY not what’s happening and we’re left to divine the “truth” for ourselves. It’s also possible that what we’re seeing is the truth, in all its Hitcher-esque glory. It’s even possible that the events depicted are a nimble combination of the two. Yet, somehow, all this ambiguity proves more stimulating than frustrating – we sense that Kleinert knows exactly what he wants to say, that there is a “what really happened,” but it’s left deliberately vague such that we can/must hammer it out on our own.
Artsploitation Films’ Blu-ray presentation is sharp and clean, with an audio commentary by Kleinert and producer Linus de Paoli that reveals the project was originally commissioned for German television before the final product spooked production heads, who opted instead for a feature presentation. The two don’t delve too deeply into explanatory or interpretational territory – those hoping to have things spelled out will be disappointed – but there is plenty of juicy material in their discussions of “not always the easiest to work with” Bukowski, and the revelation of this being Dierck’s feature film debut. There is also a trailer and a short but quite illuminating making-of piece, where we learn the story’s origin as a nightmare Kleinert had years before of an exotic, faceless figure trailing a long blade behind it, as well as several "cheats" incorporated to achieve the desired effects. (Especially love the bits about the train and running through the forest sequences.)
Der Samurai is available June 9 from Artsploitation Films and can be ordered HERE: