Till Kleinert's Der Samurai was definitely one of the best and weirdest films I watched during Fantaspoa 2014.
Since our own Joshua Chaplinsky wrote a great review for it, I decided to complement our coverage by talking with the German director. It was a long conversation of almost 40 minutes, which certainly proves two things: Kleinert is a great and kind guy and Fantaspoa a very unique festival.
Note: Spoilers throughout.
ScreenAnarchy: How has your experience been at Fantaspoa?
Till Kleinert: What can I say? It has been an amazing experience. Not much sleep. Free food, free drinks all the time. It has been a blast. I have seen a lot of films that otherwise I might not have. For example, Saint Bernard by Gabe Bartalos, who is someone I had not been aware of yet. This film took me by surprise; it was shockingly different and impressive. I feel proud and honored to have seen this film before the rest of the world because it hasn't play much at festivals yet and it deserves to be a big thing, like a new Eraserhead.
Raze is also fun and great. I think it's much better than you would expect from a film like that, because from the trailers it seems like a generic high concept thing but it's not. It's very sincere and not ironic at all.
Tell me about the origin of the concept for your film (DER SAMURAI).
Oh well, where should I start?
It's a very strange film in a way as you take certain elements...
Like different elements? Yeah, that's interesting because that comes up a lot. I'm happy if people still like the film, because for me, I know that all these elements are in it but I was never conscious about mashing up certain kind of genres. It was more an organic process with all of my influences naturally showing up. It might seem a bit weird to have this blend of influences, but to me it wasn't something I really thought about. I don't think it's consciously post-modern.
I'm aware that tonally the film is a bit strange because it's not really a straight thriller, though if you read the plot synopsis it might seem like it. It was never intended to be like that. It's also about some sort of process of liberation that our protagonist experiences. Still, on the plot surface level it's a thriller, so strange contradictions happened.
Editing was about trying to figure out how to balance and not have the viewer constantly being thrown out of the film. It was more on a thematic level and the other stuff is just things I like to see that naturally show up.
So the conception was like that, you first thought about the thematic...
Yes, in a way. At first some image always comes, or a series of images. When you travel by train from the Baltic Sea, where we go to take a swim, and then going back to Berlin you pass all these little villages in a densely forest area. While I was traveling back by train it was dusk so it was a moody atmosphere to begin with. Seeing all these little houses together, trying to brace themselves against something emerging from the forest. It was such a nice image and then I just pictured this character walking through those empty streets, where everybody is afraid of everybody. I figured, ok, what might this creature be that causes such a fear in those little, miniature towns. Then I came up with the central antagonist or villain of the piece, which is this wild, wary guy with the wild eyes and the wild hair, wearing the dress and having the sword.
Then you start to explore that image. Why did it come to me and why did I think that this would make a good central image of a film. Then you start to explore thematically what kind of person within the village might be actually looking for that kind of guy. The imagery itself is unconsciously an anagram of many things that have influenced me. Since the film is associated with dream logic, I think is also fair to just put in all these influences and to let them live and breath.
Which are these big influences?
For the central villain, der samurai, it's basically a series of images of these antagonistic figures from Japanese video games like Final Fantasy VII, in which you have the guy with a very long sword (Sephiroth). These are very tempting creatures of the dark that also serve as visions of empowerment in a video game.
Fairy tales, that's a huge thing. I really love Neil Jordan's The Company of Wolves and, again, it's not consciously in there but then someone pointed out to me that Der Samurai feels a lot like The Company of Wolves in terms of how it uses its fairy tale imagery and creates this fairy tale flow. That's also something I really like: the dark romanticism of the late 19th century German literature, or the Gothic horror.
Many things! I also love the Spanish language films of Guillermo del Toro. I don't know if you can see that in Der Samurai but these are the kind of things that match together in a weird way.
Talking about the film's setting. You're not from there...
I'm kind of from there because the thing is, I'm from Berlin and this area (where the film was shoot) is basically around the city. To me it feels like home even though is vastly different in terms of atmosphere from the city. But the city itself never felt like a place I would want to explore in a film. It always has to do with the fear and also fascination I have, as a city person, towards the countryside.
Short films I've made, they always take place in the countryside and it's always a mixture of fear and longing to discover its secrets, to find what's in the forest. This also comes from childhood experiences. The area where we shoot the film is where my grandfather used to live so I used to go there often on weekends. I was a bit afraid of my grandfather because he was a very loud and brutish guy, a bit like the boss/father figure character in the film. I guess you can see a bit of my grandfather in him. I don't know what it says about me that in the end I do with that character what I do with that character (laughs).
I would always rather stay inside because I would be afraid of insects and everything that was outside. Still, there was always a fascination as well so I guess all my films explore that. I would say Der Samurai is about my home even though it's a home that's not really the one where I live but rather one I took for myself.
Is this really your thesis film? Because if so, that's amazing.
Yes, this is my first feature film. I studied for a long time. I've been at the Berlin film school for eight years. After the first two years you start to do your own thing and work, because you have to earn money, and still try to get your thesis film off the ground. That takes a while, but yeah this is my first film.
What can you share with aspiring filmmakers and film students from your experience? DER SAMURAI looks really great and it doesn't feel like a thesis film.
Thank you so much. I'm really happy if it seems like that.
I think especially in genre cinema, because I love all these fantastic films, I'm always a bit afraid and hope that people will not take the formula because that's always a danger. Everybody knows what is to be expected of a horror film and sometimes you see films, within those genres, that just work the formula and that's something I would really recommend to every aspiring filmmaker to avoid. Try and figure out what it is that personally and very specifically moves you to make a film.
Also don't be afraid of something that's maybe strange or bad taste to others. Because that was a problem we had with Der Samurai. It was supposed to be a film made for television but the people who originally wanted us to do it rejected it. They felt it was in bad taste the way it dealt with violence and sexual tension. They just felt it was over the top, bad taste, trashy. People nowadays are so obsessed with things being classy and worthy. I think this is not the right way to think. It's all about what gets you going and what turns you on and then you should follow that and not care about whether it might be bad taste for others.
You said it looks so nice. I think this is decision every filmmaker makes and there are a lot of films, like the mumblecore horror films, which I also like but they are different in approach. Their approach is not very visual and more character driven, with some improvisation. The films look different because of that and I'm a very visual guy who tries to conceive film and its language always through imagery and the sequences of images. Taking so much care of that aspect, right from the beginning with the choice of locations, goes into the film. It's not really a matter of budget but rather of how much thought and preparation, love and ambition you spend on this aspects.
Going back to the film. It is called DER SAMURAI and there's the French LE SAMOURAÏ. Are you aware that maybe people will approach your film as a samurai piece?
In Germany Le Samouraï by Jean-Pierre Melville is called differently. It's called Der eiskalte Engel, which means "The Ice Cold Angel" and is also a nice title.
The reason why I called this film Der Samurai is that I made a short before called Cowboy and the guy who plays the cowboy character is the same that plays the samurai character in this one. In both films these are strange, hybrid creatures that are not completely real but rather mythical.
When I wrote the screenplay it was difficult to find a name for those because you can't just give them a name like John, George or whatever. They would lose the entire enigma and when I write I want to keep that enigma for myself as well. They are never called that because they have no name, but in the screenplay I need a reference name for them so I would call them the cowboy or the samurai. That inevitably becomes the title of the film because they are so central to the movie. Often they don't have a lot to do with the cowboy or the samurai, apart from the sword in this case.
If you look for a samurai in the film, the samurai is much more in Jakob, our protagonist. He's more of a samurai thematically, as for him is more about feeling bound to a sense of duty; that prevents him from approaching other aspects of his personal needs and urges.
We became aware of the Le Samouraï thing and that's why we said the film has to be called Der Samurai everywhere, internationally, so that people can make a distinction between the French Le Samouraï and the German Der Samurai.
Pit Bukowski as the samurai is a very iconic character that people will remember. You already said Bukowski was part of your previous short film (COWBOY), but now tell more about his casting as the samurai.
When I first met him he was 19. He was part of an actors agency but he hadn't worked since he was 14, when he acted in a feature film. He wasn't really pursuing acting but his picture was still in that agency's folder so when we were looking for this guy (for Cowboy) we knew we needed someone special and his face immediately struck me. He has very rough features and a cleft upper lip so it's basically a deformed face but also very beautiful.
We met him and he's an interesting guy. He's not very friendly, not just in the films. If you approach him, he will make it his mission to let you run into nothing. It's a strategy of his to figure out how people are, if they are serious about they want or not.
He also looks a bit like Klaus Kinski.
Yeah, that's true (laughs).
I think he's not as crazy as Kinski so you can talk and walk with him. You shouldn't expect him to be like most actors, who are usually like "I love everything" and friendly. He's not like that.
In Cowboy we had a very openhearted sex scene, not explicit but still for a 19-year-old to do a gay sex scene being a straight guy... and it was not a problem for him. There's some nudity in Der Samurai and that was never an issue for him. During shooting it was a bit uncomfortable for him though. He got upset sometimes as he felt he couldn't do much because he was constricted to the dress and being in the right angle for the light. He wanted to do more. It was a great working experience and I would love to shoot with him again.
The protagonist (the cop Jakob) is chasing a wolf at the beginning of the film, which is also a bit odd. Still, he has his own struggle. Is that part of the film something personal?
It's very strange. That's not the job of a cob and it's more of an obsession of his. Wolfs are returning to Germany via the Polish border, after being extinct for more than a hundred years. A law protects them but some people in the smallest villages are concerned. The wolf in fairytales is obviously negatively charged and of course it's a predator. I wanted to pick up on that.
The personal struggle seems so bloody obvious that I always try not to tell. Let's just say it's about a guy with a lot of repressed urges that he wouldn't want to acknowledge.
I'm actually very happy to talk about it, and I'm not shy, but I hate to tell how bloody obvious is. Some people, like the reviewer from Fangoria, don't see anything gay about the film, at all. And I'm totally happy with that because this is something that fuels a narrative and not the message of the film. One of Jakob's problems is that he is a suppressed gay man and maybe he's not even aware of it. That fuels a lot of the imagery but again, I wouldn't say that Der Samurai is a piece of gay liberation. It's about being an outsider or a loner in general.
For me it's personal because reflects some of my experiences but again, I'm very happy with people who see it just as a weird-nightmare-fairytale-revenge-fantasy, or whatever.
Der Samurai had its Latin American premiere at Fantaspoa.