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Director: Till Kleinert
Writers: Till Kleinert
Cast: Michel Diercks, Pit Bukowski, and Uwe Preuss
Length: 79 min
Label: Artsploitation Films
Release Date: June 9, 2015
Video codec: MPEG-4 AVC
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
Audio: German: Dolby Digital 5.1
- Audio Commentary with director Till Kleinert and producer Linus de Paoli
- Behind the Scenes Featurette
- Original Trailer
Germany has always had a rather rich cinematic history. Yet, while the early years saw the production of some of the most memorable and high caliber horror/thriller films of all time — Nosferatu, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Waxworks —, following WWII the country’s output hasn’t been quite as effective. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule but unlike France or Spain, it hasn’t had a major genre cinema resurgence (unless, of course, you consider Uwe Boll major). In his2012 IndieGoGo campaign, writer/director Till Kleinert cited this as one of his inspirations for the film, “[Der Samurai] sets out to reclaim a part of our storytelling tradition that sadly has become almost extinct in German cinema today: that of the grim, fantastical thriller.” Having its World Premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2014, the film did an extensive festival run on the festival circuit before being picked up for distribution. Acquired by Artsploitation Films, Der Samurai is now available on Blu-Ray and DVD.
The first shot of the film work to cement the complicated relationship between the spectator and narrative that Kleinert exploits throughout the rest of the film’s run-length. In a dark, decrepit room a mysterious blonde figure sits with their back towards the camera. It’s an androgynous figure; the muscular body seeming to suggest a male, but the long hair and dress implying otherwise. A sadness invades the room, but its not explicit. The shot is short but it is telling. As the ominous character sits, the camera slowly tracks towards its back, but before we are able to learn anything about them, the scene ends. For the rest of the Der Samurai, we will continue to inch closer and closer to this character, the titular Samurai, but remain distanced voyeurs; seeing but never truly knowing.
In many ways, this describes almost the whole of Kleinert’s impressive debut. Its not really a film about knowing — it’s a film about seeing and feeling. There is a medieval fairy tale like quality to it: dark and brooding but also magical. It’s a fantasy that is, at all times, grounded in realism. Kleinert is smart to do this because it never pushes the film into satirical or puerile grounds. The film’s plot is deceivingly simple: Taking place over the course of a single night, a young police officer named Jakob (Michel Diercks) is summoned into a cat and mouse chase with the sadistic and manic Samurai (Pit Bukowski) that threatens his quaint community. The real story, thus, takes places in the proverbial space between the lines, as Jakob is forced to reevaluate his identity while attempting to understand his foe.As an openly gay filmmaker, it is hard not read a gay subtext to Kleinert’s debut. The gender-ambiguous Samurai, while destructive, is also confident with its identity. Contrasted with the Samurai, is Jakob, the literal and symbolic lone wolf. Kleinert hints towards a sort of schizophrenic relationship between the two — the Samurai as potentially a side of Jakob he is unable to come to terms with — but leaves these questions unanswered. Because of this, viewers are able to come to their own conclusions about what the movie means to them. Its not didactic, Kleinert never forces any single story on his viewers.
While Kleinert’s vision is strong, the film’s greatest asset exists in Pit Bukowski’s performance. Not since Klaus Kinski — who Bukowski shares a resemblance with — has an actor been able to deliver such a palpable sense of madness through something as simple as a look. Bukowski’s electricity in the role allows the character to remain fascinating throughout. He has already worked extensively in Germany (having almost 50 credits to date) but hopefully Der Samurai’s worldwide success will allow him to expand into other, potentially bigger territories and markets. With a few more bold roles like the Samurai on his resume, it is easy to imagine Bukowski becoming a real acting force.Like Bukowski, Kleinert beautifully exploits the locations to service his visual and thematic ideas. Weaving together multiples locales, situated on the outskirts of Berlin, Kleinert envisions a cohesive, rural town nestled within an ominous forest. Shot almost all at night, the silent, dark, and barren community acts as a metaphor for Jakob. It’s a prison that traps him and because he is unable to escape it, he feels it necessary to protect it. At first, Diercks could be critiqued for being unfit for the role but, as the film progresses, every potential flaws becomes a strength. His uneasy and fragile core is necessary for the confused protagonist.
Der Samurai is not a film that is easily digested. There are enough beautiful images — including the final shot, a stunning, tantalizing scene that will surely be talked about for years to come — to keep audiences engaged, but the heart of the film takes time to settle in. Its power is that it will stick with you days, weeks, even months after seeing it. The seemingly unconnected dots begin to make sense, as your brain works through the many layers of the film. Without over-intellectualizing the film, it is also very clear that Kleinert is well versed in genre cinema. There are numerous homages included, and the scenes with the Samurai feature an impressive physicality and fluency in the art of swordplay. With Der Samurai, Kleinert emerges as a filmmaker to watch, offering one of the more exciting and challenging genre debuts in recent memory.
Shot on video, the 1080p Blu-Ray looks fine but is also a representation of the budgetary limitations of the production. Cinematographer Martin Hanslmayr does a great job giving the film a large feel, but the under lit nature of many scenes does lead to a somewhat noisy and flat image at times. In a way, this adds to the feel of the film, and is never too distracting. When they are able to have full control over their environment — the final scene for instance —, Hanslmayr and Kleinert are able to present a rather stunning image that the Blu-ray nicely highlights
The Dolby Digital 5.1 mix offers a great presentation of the aural elements. The dialogue, effects, and score are equally balanced and presented without any flaws. The original score by Conrad Oleak is, at times, rather eccentric but works well in the scope of the film.
One of the biggest gripes to be had with “behind-the-scenes” features is that they almost never really grant viewers access into the technical aspects of a films shoot. That is what is so refreshing about the included supplements on Artsploitation’s Blu-Ray release, as the BTS Featurette really gives viewers an intimate look into how some of the film’s most challenging scenes were composed. Its always fascinating to see how filmmakers work around their low budgets, and Kleinert was very resourceful. Additional to the featurette, Artsploitation provides us with a feature length commentary track with Till Kleinert and producer Linus de Paoli as well as the original Trailer and an excerpt from an interview between Kleinert and Artsploitation as liner notes — a rather ingenious use of oft-wasted space.
Those interested in boundary pushing genre cinema will find a great deal of value in this release. Der Samurai may not be quite as bloody or explosive as certain viewers may expect, but if you are the type that is willing to invest in a complex, layered story it will not let you down. With two strong performances and a hungry young director leading their way, Der Samurai is not without fault but is easily one of the most exciting and memorable debuts in recent genre history. Fit with engaging extra features, this Region A release by Artsploitation Films comes highly recommended.
Der Samurai is now available on DVD and Blu-Ray via Artsploitation Films