“DER SAMURAI” (Tribeca Movie Review)
The opening scenes of DER SAMURAI carry that pleasurable feeling that can be hard to come by on the current horror scene: The sense of not knowing at all where the story’s going, but that the filmmaker knows just what he’s doing.
That writer/director is Germany’s Till Kleinert, who went the Indiegogo route to finance his movie and has turned out a product belying its grassroots circumstances. DER SAMURAI (making its international premiere at New York City’s Tribeca Film Festival) has a look that at times borders on elegant, with beautifully eerie cinematography by Martin Hanslmayr on well-chosen locations, even as the story (skip this and the next paragraph if you want to preserve the aforementioned unpredictability) ventures into pure nutty. Following a cryptic opening shot from behind a long-blonde-haired figure in a white dress, we meet Jakob (Michel Diercks), a straight-laced young cop in a small town in the midst of deep woods who gets not much respect from his colleagues and just as little from the local hooligans. He has devoted himself to the case of a wolf that seems to be prowling the area, marauding through backyards, upsetting trash cans and unnerving the residents.
Jakob has been setting up hanging bags of meat out in the forest to lure the wolf out of hiding, and one night he returns to his station to find that he himself has received an item of bait: a long package addressed to “Lonely Wolf,” care of Jakob. From the title and the box’s dimensions, it’s not hard to guess what’s in it, but once Jakob tracks down its recipient, it turns out to be that blonde, white-dressed figure—who is actually a raspy-voiced young man (Pit Bukowski) with a feral look in his eyes. Having thus established that not everything in his film is as it seems, Kleinert takes Jakob on an overnight odyssey through the trees and streets, trying to comprehend and then apprehend the “samurai” as his behavior transitions from peculiar to violent.
DER SAMURAI has been described in some quarters as an example of queer cinema, but any such themes remain ambiguous undercurrents in a film that suggests the very basic scenario of THE HITCHER as reinterpreted by David Lynch in LOST HIGHWAY mode. Rather than seducing Jakob, the samurai’s goal seems more specifically to manipulate the repressed officer out of his shell and into a place where he’ll take violent action of his own. Unfortunately for the village’s residents, this “education” has a body count, as the samurai puts his sword to the use it was originally made for.
The fountains of blood that result seem derived from a more recent Japanese influence—the J-gore cinema of Yoshihiro Nishimura et al.—though as bizarre as things sometimes get, Kleinert holds back from letting the tone of DER SAMURAI go similarly over the top. Reflecting the state of mind of his characters, he sets a controlled mood as he follows Jakob on his quest, punctuated by the eruptions of gore as the samurai does his thing. The unpredictability of the latter’s actions and the shadow-shrouded imagery help build a sense of foreboding throughout DER SAMURAI, coupled with the question of if/when Jakob will find/embrace his own violent side to deal with the threat to him and his neighbors, and well-judged performances by Diercks and Bukowski that bring the right shadings to their respectively callow and animalistic roles.
Once things come to a head, DER SAMURAI takes a step into the truly phantasmagorical and a conclusion that can be read a couple of different ways, which may leave certain viewers unsatisfied. Others may want to go back and experience the film a second time to pick up on potential clues. Either way, it’s always refreshing to see a horror film with the potential to spark discussion about more than whether it satisfies the genre’s basic requirements.