Orphaned German police officer Jakob (Michel
Unwrapped, the box is revealed to contain a samurai sword, prompting a race against time as Jakob attempts to apprehend the stranger before he can use it on anyone. The samurai, however, seems far more interested in Jakob himself.
Only at a film festival would you encounter a cross-dressing samurai werewolf, and having played at Berlin, Tribeca and Leeds in 2014 The Samurai (actually Der Samurai) has finally arrived at Glasgow. Psychosexual horrors are nothing new, of course, but they are usually the preserve of seductive vampires and voyeuristic slashers rather than the garden variety werewolf — but then the titular samurai isn’t your typical lycanthrope.
For one, he carries a katana, and for another he doesn’t need to transform, for he already is. Unlike the pubescent Ginger Snaps, you see, this isn’t a story about transitioning from one clearly defined state to another; it’s the story of a different kind of sexual awakening. This is queer cinema at its queerest.
German writer-director Till Kleinert has created a Grimm fairy tale for the modern age, and specifically for adult audiences; The Samurai is Little Red Riding Hood by way of Kill Bill, The Ring and A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge. Quite a wide range of influences then, but Kleinert’s film happily inhabits the intersection of this very particular, very peculiar Venn diagram. He establishes a dreamlike tone and a style from the outset that permits police procedural and supernatural thriller to co-exist in peaceful harmony.
Shot on location in beautiful Brandenburg by cinematographer Martin Hanslmayr, the film is so palpably Germanic that you can’t help but picture a gingerbread house just beyond the treeline — not least because Kaja Blachnik is so clearly playing the witch that lives there. That the film is so thematically interesting or visually impressive is testament to them both.
On screen, however, it’s Diercks who impresses most. While it’s true that Bukowski is undeniably the dominant force (he’s wearing a dress and carrying a sword, after all) it’s essentially a pantomime performance, always threatening to pull the film into pastiche. Diercks, on the other hand, grounds it, underplaying everything in what ultimately amounts to a quite valiant attempt to restore some level of ambiguity — even as Kleinert spells out his LBGT/animalistic subtext and Bukowski crosses the ts.
He plays it all completely, heroically straight, for the most part at least, and convinces entirely as both a closet homosexual crushing on his tormentors (the eponymous samurai, obviously, and another who taunts him for never having fired his pistol) and a potential murderer living a frustrated existence with his disabled grandmother (who is later attacked by the wolf, but sadly never eaten…or impersonated). The Samurai asks: did he put the bait out to entice the wolf, or entrap it? Or both?
With so much going on in The Samurai it seems somehow unfair to criticise it for still leaving you wanting more, but at 79 minutes in length it sits awkwardly between short and feature film. As striking as the samurai character may be his iconography is never addressed, let alone adequately explained, while the ending — unlike the subtext in general — is frustratingly difficult to read: are the filmmakers empowering Jakob, or are they equating homosexuality with moral deviance? For the purposes of this review, and to give The Samurai the benefit of the doubt, I’m very much Team Jakob.