2015 - 79 minutes
Directed by: Till Kleinert
Written by: Till Kleinert
Starring: Michel Diercks, Pit Bukowski, Uwe Preuss, Kaja Blachnik
Der Samurai isn’t quite like anything I’ve ever seen before. In this case, that’s not quite a compliment. German director Till Kleinert taps into his homeland’s rich expressionist history to create a unique, fantasy/nightmare that loses grip on metaphor in service of surreal vision. It’s clear what the titular samurai represents, but what’s real, what’s illusion, and why any of it matters is up for debate. Usually, films that spark discussion are meaningful on at least some level, though the short (79 minutes including very long end credits) Der Samurai leaves little to mull over seriously, other than its weirdness.
Clean-cut police officer Jakob (Michel Diercks) dutifully patrols his sleepy German village and cares for his ailing grandmother. A wolf is stalking in the surrounding woods, Jakob hanging bags of meat on the trees to placate the beast and prevent it from invading the town. When a dog barks and whines while staring into the forest, we know the chances of attack are good, and the prospects of that poor dog are not.
After Jakob receives a large package at the police station, he gets instructions on where to deliver it. The “where” is a dark, fairytale-like abandoned home in the woods. The owner is a harsh-looking, cross-dressing man (Pit Bukowski) wearing bright red lipstick and a white dress. The man pulls a katana blade from the package and run towards town to wreak havoc, Jakob giving chase.
The images of a stringy blonde-haired, transvestite swordsman angrily damaging property and eventually townsfolk are certainly striking and Kleinert effectively ratchets up tension through the shadowy cinematography. The percussive, repetitive score adds another layer of dread while also creating a sense of forward momentum. As the marauding samurai, Bukowski is eerily menacing, recalling the antagonists of David Lynch, another clear influence for Kleinert.
It’s Bukowski’s interactions with Diercks where Der Samurai loses some of its meaningful mysticism. Diercks is a fine everyman, never venturing too far into bumpkin-turned-hero mode and earning our allegiance; until, that is, the end of his quest is revealed. The samurai is oddly in-tune with Jakob’s emotions, talking in riddles and spinning yarns that gradually expose the cop’s repressed sexuality issues. Though he’s largely allegorical, evidence suggests the invader exists in the physical world of the film – several headless bodies and eventually more cops could attest to that – but what’s not present are motivations or morals, leaving the gory reverie feeling strangely flaccid.
Even one of the oddest dance numbers you’ll ever see, involving a bonfire and the careful arrangement of the swordsman’s victims as sort-of spectators, does little to tweak the senses beyond the overt peculiarity. By the time Jakob and the samurai finally cross swords (so to speak), we’re left to wonder what the entire ruckus meant to accomplish. Though Jakob definitely looks different in the end, his journey seems to have led him right back to where he started.
The Der Samurai Blu-ray features commentary from Kleinert and producer Linus de Paoli, a 10-minute making-of featurette, and a trailer.