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Entries in Der Samurai [2014] (1)

Friday
Jun122015

Der Samurai (2014)

The Sword and the Conjurer

Before watching Der Samurai, I'd never seen a film distributed by Artsploitation Films. Though I wasn't bowled over by writer/director Till Kleinert's offbeat psychological thriller, it did make me appreciate both the possibilities and problems of mashing up an art film with an exploitation film. Der Samurai is a finer artistic achievement than I'm used to seeing in indie genre films, but it's not refined enough, story-wise, to necessarily warrant attention from non-horror fans.

The movie follows Jakob (Michel Diercks) a skittish young cop working a thankless beat in the small German he grew up in. Wolves have been causing terror and property destruction in the area, and Jakob leaves bloody bags of meat around town to draw the animal out. Instead, he summons Der Samurai (Pit Bukowski), a gravel-voiced, hare-lipped cross-dresser who leaps about the shadows wielding a fearsome blade. Over the course of one bizarre and bloody evening, Jakob struggles to defend his loved ones, strangers, and childhood bullies from this taunting phantom--who may be a wolf-ghost, a ghost-ghost, or the manifestation of his own repressed socio-sexual anxiety.

Diercks and Bukowski are terrific, bringing intense personalities to life that are sure to be instantly adopted by whatever cult circles discover and elevate this film. I'd be surprised to not hear about at least one Der Samurai cosplayer skulking about San Diego Comic-Con next month, striking fear (or at least unease) into the inevitable hordes of Mad Maxes, Furiosas, and War Boys. With his ruby-red lips pouting from behind a dazzling mop of hair, and lithe body giving his white dress the undulating appearance of snakeskin, Bukowski is a bona fide icon.

For his part, Diercks plays weaselly and unsure like nobody's business. That's a big problem. For as much as Der Samurai belongs to, well, Der Samurai, this is ultimately Jakob's movie. Unlucky us, our protagonist is not sustainable as a likable (or even tolerable) presence for the film's relatively slim 79 minutes. Kleinert's screenplay sets out on a wonderfully weird footing, plopping us into an isolated community whose police department shuts down after dark. I was with Jakob for the film's first half as he cautiously followed leads and pieced together the horror that was about to disrupt the community.

By the end, however, Jakob becomes an impossible boob, a country mouse of a non-entity who isn't just afraid of his shadow, he takes orders from it on how to move. By the time he gets up the courage to rush into perilous situations, he's already spent any psychic energy he might have used to actually save the day--which leads to mayhem, mass-beheadings, and an unlikely climax that made me wish he'd just been Tyler Durden all along.*

Granted, Der Samurai's selling point isn't its story. The film's hero is the way cinematographer Martin Hanslmayr's blackly poetic imagery services Kleinert's vision and editing sensibilities. Wooded nightscapes come alive in strange animated compositions that don't evoke fear so much as fascination. Consider the scene in whch a passerby's car lights up a pitch-black country road. Hanslmayr grows the headlights out of nothing and lingers on the shot as they merge into a recognizable form. No doubt, you've seen similar imagery in other movies, but Der Samurai's filmmakers treat these nothing transitions as creative opportunities instead of filler.

I don't know how casual horror/exploitation fans will react to Der Samurai. Strong performances, artistic camerawork, and imaginative staging of action scenes will take a movie far. But it ultimately boils down to story--for me, anyway, and I could feel those last twenty minutes straining against Kleinert's brain. I'm not usually one to ask for more convention in the movies, or to advocate for American adaptations of cool European films. But in this case, Der Samurai could use a little more focus and a lot less interpretive dance.**

*Is that a spoiler? Only Der Samurai knows for sure.

**That's not a figure of speech.