It’s increasingly rare in modern cinema for there to come a film that really hits that perfect note…one whose concept, execution and sheer beauty form a cinematic experience that offers something you’ve never seen before, and will always want to return to. When I saw The Samurai at Frightfest, it absolutely captivated me. I was left in no doubt that I had seen something special, a very rare beast indeed. The man behind The Samurai is the extremely talented German director Till Kleinert, who ahead of the film’s DVD release graciously gave me and Movie Ramblings his time for an interview…

Movie Ramblings (MR): Where did the concept for the film come from? Was there an initial inspiration behind it?

Till Kleinert (TK): It was two things coming together really. When I was a teenager, I used to draw comics. That was my ‘in’ into the genre of visual and sequential storytelling, before moving into films in my late teens. I think coming from that, it always starts with a central image that pops up in, mostly, some sort of lucid daydream, like a splash panel in my mind. You have everything that the film could be about condensed into one central powerful symbol. In this case, it was something that happened as I rode the train from the Baltic Sea to Berlin; you pass this rural German countryside, with all the dense forests and little villages, on an elevated train so the houses feel miniature and huddled together. It was dusk as I passed, and it created a sense of foreboding in the air, as if they were huddling together to brace themselves from some sort of perceived threat coming from those forests surrounding them. It was then that this one central image came to me, of just this lonely and slender figure roaming those empty deserted streets, wearing a dress and running a sword along the fences. So it was just there…this one guy looking for trouble in this very tidy and neat environment. From there, the development of the film came from figuring out where this image comes from, where individual came from, and the intrigue behind him. There was another element that comes more from of a place of realism that I have researched for years, which is the return of wolves to Germany. Wolves have been extinct in the wild in Germany for the last hundred years, but now they are returning via the eastern boarders. There is something powerful about this return as wolves are creatures that are so mythically charged, fuelled by fairy tales, and there is a very irrational reaction in the rural communities. They really fear they will stir some sort of peace, or equilibrium that has been established there. A wilderness returning that cannot be controlled. As it is forbidden to hunt them, wolf management plans were created to deal with the resettling of these animals and managing their impact on the community. I personally find it very interesting this way of dealing with fears of the irrational, and naturally connected with the initial central image.

MR: Absolutely. That is the one of the most striking of images of the film, the Samurai from behind, able to move from an ethereal object to an absolute force of nature. And you can feel that inspiration from the world of the comic book running through, in that sheer momentum and the power of iconic and intelligently composed visual language.

TK: Even some people think there is a video game aspect, which is interesting to me as although it isn’t as consciously in there, I used to play video games when I was younger, and recently I noted a visual connection between the stoic but sinister images of the Samurai and those of the villainous Sephiroth in Final Fantasy VII, which I played through my teens. Video games are all about powerful avatars; being this larger than life persona that is very capable, you are taking the sword and exploring a sort of power fantasy, something is particularly relevant in relation to Jakob.

MR: Speaking of Jakob, and the relevance of the power dynamic between him and the Samurai, did you always have those actors (Michel Diercks and Pit Bukowski) in mind for those pivotal two roles, as they embody the roles so perfectly.

TK: It’s definitely true for Pit, who plays the Samurai. He worked with me before on my short film, Cowboy, where he plays a similar role, channelling a sense of mystery and embodying an antagonist force that his homoerotically charged. I always think of him as a sort of mythical, almost rock star like personality. It’s interesting because I really wanted him for the part, but he’s a very masculine and very butch type, so it’s funny that I should have the urge to put him in such a sexually ambiguous role. But he was really up for it, which I am extremely grateful for it is an extremely demanding role physically, shooting outside, the dress, dealing with all the action, and even full frontal nudity. So that can put a lot of pressure on an actor, and I’m really grateful he was up for it and never questioned it. From there it was all about finding the right opposite for him, which was quite difficult. Our hero Jakob is a policeman; that’s his occupation, but he’s not what you really would call a proper policeman. In cinema, you expect a sort of straightforwardness and a clear sense of agency in that sort of police character; however, when we put actors more of that quality with Pit and did some improvisations, it just didn’t work. Pit’s instruments are so much this sort of aggressive standoffishness, that when he was put with actors that shared that same sensibility, it just didn’t lead to interesting interactions. However, when we saw Michel, it all clicked as he brought a softness and innocence to the character, and the honesty of that clicked really well in tandem with Pit’s abilities. It also helped shape the nature of the character as things are much more unclear to this Jakob we have with Michel, and makes him far more relatable to the audience. He’s much more insecure from the very beginning; you feel that although he is in the position of a police officer, it’s a niche he has carved to keep him out of trouble with the other locals and facing the issues in his life. It was perfect, but what really made us go with Michel was his dance. In the casting of the character, we made the actors dance, because we thought that Jakob is the kind of guy who would never feel comfortable dancing in public…but if he was on his own in his room, a sort of sensuality would awkwardly bubble up to the surface, as it does in the film. So we gave Michel a song by Julee Cruise from the Twin Peaks soundtrack, and he was just perfect at conveying that personality through his movements. To the point where there is no choreography in the film, that’s all him…what does it look like this strange creature that bubbles out of Jakob when he lets go. I’m really happy with them and how they bounced off of each other perfectly.

MR: It’s funny that you mention the use of Julee Cruise in relation to finding Jakob’s dance, as I do feel there are elements of Jakob that remind me of Jeffery Beaumont in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, in that sense of a bubbling underside, playing between innocence and a dark intrigue driving him.

TK: He looks innocent, but he’s got some issues…he’s quite a pervert really.

till

MR: Looking back, is there a moment in the film or experience from the set that you are most proud of, or feel is more representative of the film you wanted to achieve from that initial image?

TK: When shooting you do have moments where you can just feel everything is starting to come together, and one of those is the dance scene. I often get asked if I wasn’t afraid when shooting that scene that it might come across as ridiculous. However, the funny thing for me is those moments where you are walking the line between the ridiculous and the sublime are the most interesting, and when shooting, where everyone feels most alive and in the moment, as we really can’t know where this is going. I’m much more afraid of shooting the standard situations, like at the beginning of the film which follows more classical horror imagery, as these are the kind of scenes where you need to establish the surface tension. I feel much more insecure about doing something like that, than scenes like the dance where everything comes together and you know this is where everything just feels right. Also, the final effects shot with the fireworks. Obviously It’s a very technical thing to pull off on set, and took half a day to get the shot. There were lots of things that could have gone wrong, and on the DVD bonus features there will be three other takes that we didn’t ultimately use, but the most amazing thing is the focus of everyone involved on that moment. There were a lot of resetting, elaborate camera movements and use of high-speed film; but when we finally saw the playback, it was a beautiful moment. Although the fireball in the final take was actually unplanned, as the smoke got so hot that the sparks ignited it, so in terms of health and safety, it was a bit iffy actually. We could have gone subdued with the effects considering the low budget, but we wanted the spectacle. You need to be willing to ride that line between ridiculous and sublime. There is something that opens up when you hit that sweet spot. Even the music in that sequence is another moment that clicked, which is a song by one of my favourite bands, The Ark. It works as a sort of anthem of self-realisation, and acts as a counterpoint to what we have seen before. A pop music resolution that gives a different angle on everything we have seen before, to see it as liberation, and not just a horror story.

MR: Finally, do you have any other ideas in the works, or is that top secret?

TK: I have been working for a long time on a concept for a television series, which would be a limited series of eight episodes, that is a horror mystery hybrid. Growing up, I lived in a socialist housing tower block, and there was always an ideology connected to it, as if the places themselves were educating you to be a complete socialist being. Even as a child I could tell something was inherently flawed in the realisation of the idea. It was quite a horrific experience in terms of scale and how you felt as a human being between those blocks; so I’ve always wanted to make something about one of those tower blocks being possessed by something else that has taken the place of that ideology in the wake of the reunification. It’s a social utopian horror. I hope I can maybe be shooting the pilot episode at some point later this year.

MR: I will certainly be watching that! Thank you so much for your time, and congratulations on the masterpiece that is The Samurai.

The Samurai is released on DVD on Monday 13th April (go buy it!)

 

About The Author

Matthew Hammond is a full time cinephile, specializing in cult, art house and 1980’s cinema. While film is his overwhelming passion, Matthew has been known to enjoy comic books, Sherlock Holmes stories and a good film related T-shirt. Feel free to email me with any questions or comments: mattpaul61@o2.co.uk