As inseparable as horror and symbolism may be, it’s hard to view Till Kleinert’s stylish Der Samurai as anything other than a strenuous test of what happens when that balance is tipped a little too heavily towards the symbolic end. A dreamy tale of man versus his inner beast, Der Samurai is all style and no substance, stuffed full of beautiful cinematography, “weird” characters and a fairy tale setting but also full of conflicting notions of identity.
Following seemingly meek young police officer Jakob Wolfski (Michael Diercks) as he attempts to take care of a wolf troubling his hometown (get it?), Der Samurai shifts gears when Jakob receives a long, thin package addressed to “The Lonely Wolf.” When Jakob takes the package open, he receives a mysterious phone call from the apparent owner of the package, who lures Jakob out to an abandoned property and is revealed to be…well, this is where it gets murky. The package is a kitana, that much is clear, but its recipient can be read a few ways. Clad in a thriftshop white dress and blonde locks, the titular samurai might be a transgender Beatrix Kiddo, hellbent on forcing Jakob out of his sleepy town through traumatic violence and over the top vengeance. Given the Artsploitation release of the film’s translation of much of the dialogue involving the Samurai, with its abundant use of the archaic “transvestite” term, it’s probably more likely that Pit Bukowski’s character is meant to be read like a more spontaneous Buffalo Bill.
That reading is backed up by the film’s unfortunate take on masculinity, where Jakob’s attempts to not overuse his firearm are turned into a running dick joke whenever he encounters the town’s inexplicably popular bike gang and where the Samurai is constantly trying to seduce Jakob, to the extent that this fear of being “turned” is more dangerous to Jakob than the increasingly destructive violence the Samurai inflicts on the town. Bukowski deserves some credit for turning a horribly undercooked character into something resembling depth– Bukowski does more with hunched, reptilian posture and half-closed eyes than most actors manage with their entire bodies– but the Samurai is mostly a shallow object, merely an opportunity for the filmmaker to show off sight gags like amusingly placed headless bodies or a Lynchian dance sequence gone murderous.
In interviews, Kleinert has said that Jakob is “a suppressed gay man” and that in some ways the character reflects Kleinert’s own experience, yet we’re not meant to view the story as a work of “gay liberation.” That’s a relief, because the story certainly doesn’t have any liberating qualities. Regardless of its queer elements (including billing itself as a “nightmarish queer thriller”), the film ultimately comes across as borderline homophobic and more blatantly transphobic, pushing a town’s fear of The Other into a literal representation of apocalyptic views of outsiders. This is a movie where every nightmare small town folk have about gay men– that they want to convert straight folk and that their ways bring death– comes to horrifying life. The film’s “heroic” climax is even eroticized, literally pitting an erect sword against an erect penis.
Der Samurai is apparently Kleinert’s thesis film, so these criticisms come with a major caveat. If paired with an actual, worthwhile screenwriter rather than attempting to go the auteur route, Kleinert could blossom into a notable director. Der Samurai is a gorgeous film, expertly shot and framed by Martin Hanslmayr, and its rural German setting is a welcome respite from more typical horror locations. The film gets surprising tension out of its wide open spaces, making the threat of the Samurai not one of getting caught in a confined space but of speed and immediacy. Why Jakob’s suppressed homosexuality takes the form of a kitana-wielding psychopath with some kind of bond to the wolf he was chasing may not be clear, but at least Kleinert and company make the villain stand out.
Still, that’s not quite enough to sustain a film as ambitious as this. Where works like Ginger Snaps and Rosemary’s Baby smartly universalize their horror by exploring fears of women’s bodies, Der Samurai attempts to do the same with masculinity and ultimately falls flat. Here the abundance of symbols serve as a mask attempting to cover up the flaws contained beneath, making for a cinematic experience that stretches beyond its capacity and breaks itself in the process.
Morgan Davis sells bootleg queso on the streets of Austin in order to fund Loser City. When he isn’t doing that, he plays drums for Denise and gets complimented and/or threatened by Austin’s musical community for stuff he writes at Ovrld, which he is the Managing Editor of.