The Samurai (Der Samurai): Tribeca Review

Schattenkante Berlin
Fasten your seatbelts, it's going to be a schlocky night.

Novice German director Till Kleinert's queer thriller, a Tribeca Midnight selection, stars Michel Diercks and Pit Bukowski.

LUXEMBOURG – A schlocky queer thriller or a German-language neo-giallo about desire, dreams and Doppelgangers, Till Kleinert’s small-scale but impressive debut feature, The Samurai (Der Samurai), could be described in numerous ways.

It’s no small feat that the novice feature director, who here combines elements from sources as varied as Heimat productions, werewolf movies, slasher films, Japanese revenge pictures and another small dozen genres besides, manages to quickly establish a tone that allows for all the influences to not only harmoniously co-exist but also feel like something quite unique and self-contained. This Berlinale premiere will appeal to fans of psychological horror and/or queer exotica and has already been picked up for release in Germany and the U.K., where it will be released in the fall by Peccadillo Pictures. Samurai will have its stateside bow in the Midnight section of the upcoming Tribeca Film Festival.

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This short -- it clocks in at under 80 minutes -- but intense and atmospheric feature is set entirely in a picturesque wooded region on the German-Polish border and is really a prolonged game of cat-and-mouse between a young and straight-shooting police officer, Jakob (Michel Diercks), and the titular samurai (Pit Bukowski), a cross-dressing villain with a large sword and a predilection for beheadings and quite literally bloody mayhem.  

The still wet-behind-the-ears Jakob has been trying to dissuade a wolf that’s been scaring the local population from coming close to the village by providing him with fresh meat deep within the forest. Jakob first meets the samurai when a mysterious, elongated package that’s addressed to the wolf, but care of Jakob, is delivered at the rural police station where he works and the dutiful newbie tries to find out where the package came from and who the real addressee could be.

Once the samurai, in a blocky white dress and gifted with wildly unkempt blond hair and an intensely feral stare, has locked eyes with his prey, it becomes almost impossible for either to let go, though initially Jakob might want to. The film beautifully opposes the policeman’s rigid sense of order and duty with the samurai’s animalistic sense of abandon and disregard for life or death, even as it becomes increasingly clear that the fact that the two men are almost polar opposites could be more than just a coincidence. Through it all, Diercks keeps an admirable straight face, while the intensity of Bukowski’s performance risks, at times, to burn up the screen entirely.

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Mostly shot at night and on locations expertly chosen and dressed by production designers Tomoko Okada and Sandra Fleischer, Kleiner and his talented director of photography, Martin Hanslmayr, let the action unfold in tableaux-like shots in which dark shadows alternate with the occasionally almost gargoyle-like faces illuminated by fiery, nightmarish reds and yellows. The gore is just unconvincing enough to remind viewers that this tale should not be taken literally, while the special effects of the film’s final beheading are both spectacular and highly symbolical.

Editing, music and foley work further amplify the tension and general sense of unease, as the plot seems to ricochet from one red herring to another but in reality might be uncovering layers within Jakob's psyche.  

Production companies: Schattenkante Produktion , Deutsche Film- und Fernsehakademie Berlin

Cast: Michel Diercks, Pit Bukowski, Uwe Preuss, Ulrike Hanke-Haensch, Kaja Blachnik, Christopher Guy Kane, Janin Halisch, Ulrike Bliefert

Writer-Director: Till Kleinert

Producers: Anna de Paoli, Linus de Paoli

Director of photography: Martin Hanslmayr

Production designers: Tomoko Okada, Sandra Fleischer

Music: Conrad Oleak

Costume designers: Malena Modeer, Vivien Waneck

Editor: Till Kleinert

Sales: Salzgeber Medien

No rating, 79 minutes