Till Kleinert on Der Samurai

Interview: Till Kleinert on Der Samurai (2014)

Till Kleinert on Der Samurai interview first published by Film4

Berlin-born Till Kleinert has led a double life. He started out writing and directing the feature-length apocalyptic horror The Longest Night – shot on poor-quality DV in 2004, and screened at two festivals (including Raindance) in 2008 before in effect disappearing – but he now regards the film as little more than an embarrassing ‘exercise’. After its production was over, Kleinert was reborn, embarking on a degree in film studies, and making a slew of short films – including the award-winning Cowboy (2008) – which culminated in his ‘thesis’ feature The Samurai, now travelling the festival circuit to considerable acclaim.

A gay-themed, genre-leaping tale of rampage and revenge in a sylvan landscape situated halfway between the folkloric and the psychological, Der Samurai follows local policeman Jakob Wolski (Michel Diercks) as, over one long night, his community and his life are turned upside-down by a mysterious, cross-dressing stranger (Pit Bukowski) armed with a samurai’s katana. Shortly before the film’s UK premiere at Film4 FrightFest 2014, he spoke on the phone with Film4’s Anton Bitel.

You’re a Berlin boy born and bred, but pretty much every film that you have made, short or feature-length, has a woodland or rural setting.

Till Kleinert: I have a soft spot for the countryside. My grandfather used to live in a forested area north of Berlin – which is also where we shot The Samurai – and I feel some sort of weird connection to those places, even though as a city boy I come from a place of maybe being afraid a bit of the countryside and also always sensing something dark and foreboding within those forests and within those trees. I think there’s always the danger, as someone coming from the city and talking about the countryside, that you fall into the trap of going for a cliche or a stereotype, since all those sorts of fears that I connect with – like in Cowboy and also in The Samurai, how suffocating it can be to live in a small community and stuff like that – this is not my own experience. I haven’t lived in such a place so in a way it’s an assumption that I’m very aware of, that this might be more of an archetype, say, than an actual experience of mine. But I find it often very fruitful to use my own feelings of alienation – during my teens, for example – which I felt very much in the city as well. I find places in the countryside to be much more appropriate backdrops to those sorts of stories or to those sorts of feelings. That’s basically why I go there.

In The Samurai, the woods are also the locus of the fairytale: there’s a wolf, a grandmother, a protagonist who shares his forename with one of the brothers Grimm. How does Little Red Riding Hood fit in with the overall scheme of your film? Or were you going for a more general reference?

It’s not like a proper adaptation of Little Red Riding Hood, but once the general plot, or the general direction, was there, I saw those links, and I tried to enforce them. But there are several blueprints. You have Little Red Riding Hood. You have the E.T.A. Hoffman Doppelgänger tales. One blueprint, for example, is also The Hitcher, by Robert Harmon, the Rutger Hauer film. I think in terms of plot mechanics you can trace that film as a blueprint, it pretty much holds the same structure. I’m not particularly looking for those, not from the get-go – but rather once I know where the plot is leading me, I start to see all kinds of other fiction that have done those roles before, and I like to strengthen those links. I’m not necessarily sure why that is, or what my agenda is in doing this. It just happens, quite naturally.

Famously with his title Le Samouraï (1967), Jean-Pierre Melville promised one genre but delivered another, while still allowing his noir to be haunted by a Japanese shadow of duty, honour and death. Now you have done something similar with your title. What, for you, is the title’s significance? And is Pit Bukowski’s katana-wielding character more samurai or ronin?

Well, he’s definitely a ronin. Der Samurai comes from a very mundane place originally, like with Cowboy as well, because Cowboy [also] has a very archetypical title that sort of links or connects to a world of expectations that you connect with a certain genre. The reason in both cases was that I had this antagonistic figure that came out of nowhere, that came from a dimension that is not really ours so to speak, and I needed to find a name to address them in the screenplay – even though they are never addressed by that name in the actual film – because I refer to them all the time in my scene descriptions, and so I was always looking for a name that is true to their nature of being this sort of character that you can’t quite get a grip on. If I would give them a proper German name or something they would lose this sort of mystique. So I always try to give them a word like ‘cowboy’ – so he was the cowboy, for me, and this guy was the samurai, which obviously comes first from him wielding the katana. So that’s what I called the character in the screenplay, but then also, in becoming the title of the film, it gains more significance, and I think in the case of Der Samurai, actually Jakob is the one who could be called a samurai. In samurai films it’s about your personal urges and agendas that you will always hold back in order to follow your master through and in order to keep the order of your master or your lord, and I think that pretty much described Jakobs’ way of life, or Jakob’s outlook on life. It’s a sort of ironic coincidence that the guy coming in wielding the sword is actually quite the opposite of a samurai, as he’s someone who follows only his own code.

It is hard to say whether your film is a coming-out drama disguised as revenge horror, or the other way around. Is genre for you a repressive shackle, or a costume that (like the dress of your titular character) can liberate self-expression?

To me it’s more like a liberating costume that you can put on. Naturally, you are allowed to explore some of your fantasies – like revenge fantasies, for example – in a much more literal, or gruesome, or whatever, way than you are allowed to in a realistic drama. You can push the bounds a bit. You can test how far you can, for example, take a character before he starts to break, or before he starts to become mad. I find it very liberating, it’s a bit like dancing. In a way, the film is all about a character who is afraid to dance in public, and in the end gets to do it. I think these sorts of masks that you can put on with genre help me specifically a lot in terms of being willing and able to dance in public, so to speak…

As a filmmaker, you mean?

Yes, as a filmmaker, because you could read the film as a coming-out story but I would never feel too inclined or happy to try and make a realistic retelling of my coming-out experiences. I don’t know, it’s something – one, I don’t think I would be good at it, but on the other hand I also think that I would be, maybe, not willing to explore it enough thematically, you know.

So genre gives you a kind of vehicle that you wouldn’t otherwise have to express those ideas.

Yes, most definitely – and also, I think, it has a lot to do with personal tastes as well, in that I think, for me, it is not necessarily a conscious choice to work in genre, but it’s rather all the texts that I have read as a child, or all the sorts of fiction that I have consumed – they formed some sort of set of words, a language for me that I have at my disposal. And since the stuff that I consumed was mostly dark fiction, fantasy, something like that, I think it is for me very natural to use those sorts of tools, those sorts of words, to express whatever I might want to express.

Speaking of guises, your samurai is both a cross-dresser and, I guess by implication, also a werewolf – he takes on identities of otherness. How central, for you or for your film, is the theme of personal transformation? 

Well, I think it’s at the core of the film. Transformation is not necessarily the word I would use, rather liberation, but no, it makes sense, like you said, it is sort of suggested that he is, or might be, a werewolf, but it’s not made literal or specific in terms of that we see a transformation or anything, but in terms of that the film is all about Jakob coming into his own and in a way transforming. I always get asked what the ending means or is supposed to mean, because some people feel like in the end Jakob in a way decapitates the samurai and all the fireworks go off. I did talk to one guy who felt that it was like Jakob falling back into his role as a cop and doing his duty, but I don’t have that feeling. To me, it is something else completely: when all that stuff that has been bound up within that other, that gets released, that smoke and everything, it’s free, it’s like a poison that has been set free – so for me it is like Jakob actually embracing and inhaling that sort of stuff, and in a way that transforms him.

There has also been a film that I have made which is not genre or fantasy at all, called Cocoon. It’s a very short film, a seven-minute film, and it’s about a boy, a teenager, who has very long hair and who gets a haircut, and about his change of perception about himself through that haircut. So this is a film, for example, that is very much about transformation. I think it’s a theme that you can trace through all of my films.

There is an ambiguity in your film, ultimately resolved, that plays on issues of perception. Jakob is both protagonist and focaliser for the film’s point-of-view, but there are signs that some of what we see through him is infused with his fantasy, and also that others from the village may be more aware of Jakob’s repressed sexuality than he himself is. And while Jakob may remain unaware throughout that his confrontational dance with the Samurai is all shadowboxing – a sort of costume drama for Jakob’s own internal psychosexual conflict – many viewers will recognise this from very early on in the film (as of course the other characters inevitably do). Was Jakob’s fugue state, his sort of self-denial, intended as a twist with a last-minute reveal, or did you expect your viewers to be way ahead of Jakob in recognising, or at least suspecting, that the samurai is a monster unleashed from Jakob’s own closet? Or is this question just a massive spoiler?

This is a good question, because to me there was never supposed to be a big reveal, so I think I’m very happy if the audience from quite early on catches that, and sort of knows that it is witnessing a struggle of coming to terms, or even of not coming to terms, of denial – a state of prolonged denial – of the protagonist to actually acknowledge that those are his desires. I think that the film is a much richer experience if you have that hunch from quite early on actually, because then it’s so much fun, even though it’s a bit of cruel fun, to see how far Jakob has to bend in order to keep his state of denial up, you know what I mean…

…and to maintain his fantasy…

…to maintain his fantasy that he’s in charge, that he’s a cop in charge. I think that this was like the fuel, the fun, at least for me when writing it. I never wanted the film to feel twisty, or that at some point you would have this, “Oh, oh, I get it!”, in terms of a Fight Club reveal. To me it’s like, obviously this other guy is an aspect or a representation of some aspect of Jakob, but because I feel like you sense that from very early on, there’s no need to get a moment where he wakes up or something like that. For me, the whole film becomes a dream sequence of him, so to speak. It’s a fantastical film, and in fantastical films the monsters are real, even though the monsters are of course shadow representations of needs and urges of our main characters. That’s what the whole fantastical genre seems about, so I don’t feel like I need to put in another layer of actual reality into the film that we can fall back on in the end and say: “Oh. Oh my god, it was just me all the time.” This is the fun of this sort of genre, of this type of fiction, I think: some repressed aspect of your personality becomes so strong that it just needs to wildly blow up and actually become flesh, you know, and to haunt you – and [it] can actually do damage in the real world. I just love that. I’m sorry that people get the notion that it might be a twist, because I didn’t want that, maybe I was being a bit too coy.

This is not the first time that you have worked with Pit Bukowski, who delivers a sneering, animalistic performance here that is very memorable. How did you discover him, and what is it like to work with him?

Well we discovered him for Cowboy. He had only acted once before, which was when he was 13, and he was 19 when we cast him for Cowboy. So because of that one role which he had in a feature film – it was a very small role – he was in an agency. [He] never got work, but his picture was in there. For Cowboy we were looking for someone who had this sort of hick face, like a very brutish and backwoods sort of face, but there should also be something very beautiful about it, or something very alluring. We found his, and we were quite intrigued. Then we met him and we hit it off pretty well with him. He was at that time doing A-levels, and he was playing in a band, he was a guitar player back then. That really played in our favour, because he was willing to be quite exhibitionistic, in Cowboy. He’s completely straight, totally heterosexual. After that he got a lot of work, and he was on German television.

But shooting with him was – I mean, also with Cowboy – quite difficult, because he can be quite rude, and he’s not always responding very well to direction. That was especially hard with Der Samurai, because with Der Samurai he is wearing a wig and a dress, and oftentimes it was very important to position him in a certain kind of light, and that at some points infuriated him, that he felt he is a bit trapped within the confines of the costume or of the positioning or something. I think he comes through quite perfectly, and I think he comes through better in fact because we give him these very confined spaces within which to actually focus and get everything across, because if you let him improvise too much, he tends to be all over the place, and not be as precise and not be as memorable as you said he is in the film. But that makes shooting him a bit hard, because his head was itching all the time – because of the wig – and also, he being a very much straight, macho guy, I think that somehow wearing the dress all the time at night, there were just some issues that we had to deal with. But it was a lot of fun – I would definitely shoot with him again, I just hope that he will be up for it. He is very happy with the performance in the finished film, but during shooting it was complicated.

And in casting Michel Diercks as Jakob, were you looking for someone with similarities to or differences from Bukowski?

There needed to be some sort of similarity, but rather in general appearance. I think it’s good that they are both blonde, I think it’s good that they both have quite bright skin tone. But in terms of approaching a problem, approaching a situation, I think it was quite important that they are very very different. Pit has this very rough and this sort of, how you say, hard approach – [for Jakob] we were looking for someone who has a softness about him. The problem of the character is that he is quite passive – often he rather reacts to what the samurai gives him, rather than taking matters into his own hands, and that can be difficult for an actor to pull off, and it can also be difficult to watch, because you can get the sense of, “Oh my, why doesn’t he do something?” So, I always thought, ok, but I want him to be like that, I want him to be that guy waiting, or not actually wanting the confrontation, but it needs to be in an interesting way – or in a way that is interesting when opposed to Pit’s way of doing things.

And so we did castings, and we found this guy, and I think they worked very well together. There was one thing we did in the casting, because as I said, the film is basically about a guy who won’t dance in public, and so we gave him a song – ‘Into the Night’, by Angelo Badalamenti from the Twin Peaks soundtrack – and you can sort of sway a bit, but it’s very hard to dance to that song. And we played that, and we said, “OK, you’re alone in your room. You will never dance in public, but when you’re alone in your room and you look in the mirror, you do.” And so he danced to that song, and it was very convincing – because I think he was really good at portraying this weird sort of sensuality, that never really got a vent, that never really got the chance to get outside – these sort of twisted motions, and all this stuff that he also does when he’s finally dancing in the film, and I think that was really beautiful, and that was what convinced us most to take him.

What’s next? 

It’s a television series, like an eight-part miniseries about a housing project, you could say. During film school you never get to do that, and now I think everyone wants to do it. In East Germany we have those Plattenbauten, these very specific housing projects that were built in the 60s, 70s, and became old very fast. And it’s about one of those houses, one of those complexes, and its inhabitants, and about one inhabitant that all of the other inhabitants are not aware is there, but he – or it – is influencing their every movement. So it’s a bit like a Lovecraftian horror story/mystery with a slice of social realism. It’s something that I have wanted to do for a very long time because also as a child I lived for a very long time in one of those housing projects. I think they have very specific features that are very scary and very fright-inducing, and I think it would be very much fun to give them a stage for the audience. It’s a bit like Candyman, for example, the film by Bernard Rose, or the short story by Clive Barker, The Forbidden – or even a very nice comicbook called Domu, by Katsuhiro Otomo. These are several influences. I have a TV commissioning editor who’s working with me on it, and I hope it will come to pass.