Der Samurai: Interview with Director Till Kleinert

Till Kleinert – c: Jide Akinleminu

I must admit that horror films are generally not my bag; however, this one grabbed me by the throat and did not let me go for the duration of the film.  The direction, acting, sound design, and cinematography were calculated, yet naturally fluid, in Till Kleinert’s wonderful Tribeca Film Festival debut, Der Samurai . Till is a native of Berlin, fresh out of film school, with a bright career ahead of him.  He is wise for his ripe age and has a strong grasp on cinema history and theory. 

Der Samurai is a fantastical mélange of film genres, including the horror, the giallo (crime fiction/mystery), Japanese samurai, queer films, and the thriller.  Yet this young director was able to compose a film that is seamless, regardless of its ambitious goals.  The story follows Jakob (Michel Diercks), a young policeman in a small German town, who receives a long rectangular package containing a mysterious object.  Jakob is soon contacted by a peculiar, sinister, almost asexual voice, via telephone, explaining that the package belongs to him (the Samurai). Jakob immediately meets the Samurai (Pit Bukowski), a cross-dressing villain with a thirst for blood and destruction, yet hiding a need for real intimacy.  The next seventy minutes of the film will test Jakob as an officer of the law, but mostly as a man unprepared to open his horizons into the Samurai’s vision of life. And practice of death. What is to follow is an unpredictable beheading extravaganza.
I do not want to add more about the film, as I find it might ruin the surprises that Till was kind enough to give us.  If you have a love for cinema, the cat-and-mouse chase, and the showdown, this is the film for you.  Here is the interview I was lucky enough to conduct with Till, who gave me more than ample time to answer my anal-retentive curiosities.  I was thrilled at the outcome.  I hope you are too.  Enjoy!   
Agnolucci: Stylistically your film has a very personal and particular touch.  It is a careful blend of many genres (such as the giallo, psychological horror, Japanese samurai, queer films, the thriller, etc. …), yet it is never off the charts and remains cohesive and original throughout the story’s progression, including the way you chose to shoot it.  Was there a storytelling line, or a word, that you decided to follow from the beginning, in order to stay true to your story?  What theme or themes fueled Der Samurai?
Kleinert: Thank you.  The main theme for me, or what was the most important thing for me, was to have a sense of liberation at the end.  I already likened it to music; I love those post-rock bands like Explosions in the Sky or even God Speed You! Black Emperor, who have this huge buildup to some sort of epiphany, when all of a sudden the chords just break into some really blissful sense of open skies.  But it goes through stages of contradictions, where everything gets loud and hard and not easy to listen to, but at the end of that, you will get to this point of where you can actually let that all go, where you can leave that behind.  You went through all that.  So that was the through line I wanted to have for the film—that our main character, the policeman, has to move through this nightmarish progression, even if it’s fun all the time, at least for me as a viewer, to at the end have earned himself this totally over the top, in a way, moment of liberation.  He never would have allowed himself something like that at the beginning of the film.  Through this experience, of going through all that, he deserved it.  That was the through line that we wanted to follow. 
But it’s nice that you say that, because that was the hardest thing when editing the film.  To keep all those different tones that are in there deliberately, but to edit it in a way that you wouldn’t be constantly thrown out of the progression of the film by another twist and turn that it takes.  Despite the fact that I wanted to keep those tonal shifts and twists as well.  It is very important that, on the one hand, you can have a film about a policeman who is trying to stop the madman, but also being about a policeman siding with the madman and falling for the madman.  This is the main contradiction within our hero, and so this contradiction should also be in the film.  That makes it difficult sometimes to keep the film on track, on the rails.  So thank you very much that you think it does, because it was the hardest part in structuring it in the editing process and get it to its final shape. 
For example, one thing we had to do in order to get to that was that at one point the film gets to a sort of dream or nightmare logic; so you stop, I hope, to ask yourself questions.  Like, wouldn’t he have to call back up at some point?  Or wouldn’t he have to get his gun at the station earlier?  In the original screenplay, we addressed all of these points; and throughout the night we came back to those, in order to ensure the audience that we thought of that, and here’s the reason why he can’t.  We wanted to get rid of the realism of it all; so we edited all of that out.  I think it works much better this way.  We actually shot all that material, to keep it close to the original vision.  I had the feeling that I would much rather keep the audience, by giving them exactly what I want to do and tell and not just try to keep everything grounded in a reality that at one point is not even there anymore in the film, because we gradually leave that.  That was the main part of the editing process.      

Agnolucci: It is evident that the two protagonists’ (Jakob and the Samurai) lifestyles greatly contrast, yet the quasi self-induced separation they experience from their respective packs leaves them with uncanny similarities in their relationship to society, their townsmen, and themselves.  Was this juxtaposition of characters always as strong in the script, or was it further developed during rehearsals with the actors?
Kleinert: That’s a good question. I don’t know; I can’t tell you actually.  I can tell you this: that at the beginning of the film those similarities between them weren’t played up as much.  So, at first it was about this small-town policeman who encounters this very irrational guy who runs amok in the city and who has no answer to that.  It was more about that at the beginning.  That you would have this small ordered world, and you would be confronted with something that cannot be rationally grasped.  During development, we realized that exploring the Samurai character, and what he means to Jakob, was much more interesting to us.  It was very one-note. and it didn’t really explore the Samurai (the character) as much as I wanted to.  You start to wonder, why do you want to put these two together?  You have an agenda, but maybe you don’t want to acknowledge it; so you should explore it a bit more.  It was developed more in the script and not so much in the rehearsals.  It was very nice seeing them, because we always knew we wanted to use Pit as the Samurai, and we looked for his antagonist for a long time.  It was great seeing them play off each other in the initial casting, because we were sure they were the ones.  Pit has a way of being very aggressively non-forthcoming, and then seeing Michel not be discouraged by that and still try different angles to get to him.  We tried to keep the strengths of these two actors and just play it up in the film. 
We didn’t rehearse too much.  I find that there are things that can’t be rehearsed.  It’s so different when he is in that dress out in the cold at night.  We used a studio space for two days to feel our way around it, to work on scenes that weren’t working at all, but it was completely different than what we had on set and on location.  I think it was more the actors and their personalities that influenced their characters.  I often think that acting is in the casting, in finding the right people and giving them opportunities to spark off each other, and they did that quite beautifully.  
Agnolucci:  The characters in your film all have a very specific identity and strong defined personalities; yet their mysteries are always present, making them all the more attractive.  Tell us about how you wrote this script and where it came from.  What was the inspiration that told you I must make THIS film, I have to tell THIS story?
Kleinert: This is interesting because this is a question that kind of never occurs to me because I am always working on only one film.  I made a short film before called Cowboy, and in that you can see a lot of seeds of this film.  For me it’s more like a progression.  In Cowboy there were certain things addressed but maybe not explored to the fullest, or explored from a different angle, and I wanted to go back to those themes.  Pit, who plays the Samurai, plays an attractive yet dangerous object of affection—a farmhand, and there’s a real estate guy who drives around the Eastern countryside, looking for investment prospects.  He falls on this completely abandoned village, except for one guy who’s on a giant harvesting combine.  There is an erotically charged tension happening between them.  There was something about that constellation that I liked: a very civilized man, who has learned to repress his urges, being confronted with someone who is very much the opposite.  Naturally from that there was a progression to the themes of Der Samurai.  I think now you might find certain traces of Der Samurai in the next film.  David Cronenberg, for example, whose films I like very much, had a period in the ’80s where he had a really nice run of films that were thematically preoccupied with the body and sickness.  I like that you can watch his films and see a thematic progression.  I hope though, of course, that each film of mine stands on its own.  For me it’s more about being infused by previous films and thinking ahead after, where do I go from now?  But it’s always one film at a time.  I don’t have a huge cupboard of ideas.  It’s hopefully much rather organic just moving from one project to the next.     

Agnolucci:  What do wolves mean to you?  Have you ever become close with a wolf or lived near wolves? Wolves and humans have a long adversarial history, yet wolves, by fact, hardly attack humans and are actually very social animals, while unfortunately remaining an endangered species.
Kleinert: Sure.  That I can elaborate on easily, because it played very much in the inception of the film.  Right now we have wolves returning to Eastern Germany, because in Germany wolves have been extinct for more than 100 years.   Now they are slowly returning from eastern Europe, and there are wolf packs settling in rural Eastern Germany, like where the Russians had their troops stationed in the forest, in abandoned bases, and the wolves are settling in there.  Some environmentalists have a huge fascination with them and track them, collecting their feces.  A huge part of the population is not necessarily afraid of them, but have this irrational feeling of “they shouldn’t be here.”  That something needs to be done about this, and they want to shoot them.  As you say, wolves are not dangerous, and there are means that can be taken to keep them away from sheep, for example.  The state even helps them to do that, to put up higher fences to keep the wolves out.  Still there is this feeling that they stir up the order.  This ties in nicely with the image of the outsider. 
I like that Jakob has sort of a confidant.  Even though he has never seen it, he really longs to see it.  There is some sort of connection he makes with this perceived threat walking around in the forest.  It’s still very much in our subconscious—this fairy tale image of the wolf as an aggressor and a sexual aggressor; it’s such a nice image.  People also romanticize wolves, like seeing the moon in a wolf’s eyes.  The wolf in itself is neither beautiful not threatening; it’s just an animal like other animals.  Those are just some attributions that we give to them.
Agnolucci:  Please tell us about the photography in your film. I loved the way you shot this story with such care and precision; yet it never felt directed or calculated at any point.   Some of the chase scenes in the forest were filmed with flashlights that shoot quick glimpses of images mixed with darkness, as Jakob hunts down the Samurai.  This visual style renders a higher sense of Jakob’s blind search for this illusive criminal.  Did you storyboard and flesh out the visuals prior to shooting?
Kleinert: You just answered your own question; that’s fine.  It’s basically what you just said; this was the main concept.  We wanted to have islands of light within complete darkness.  So these islands would be the thing you could see: the conscious; and around that you have this huge area of the subconscious, which you need to explore, but maybe you don’t want to.  It was a deliberate visual concept.  Yes, we storyboarded it, we always storyboard.  I am much more of a visual director, at least in my initial approach.  Some directors like to set up the scene first and then they decide how will I shoot this?  This is not how I work.  For me the image is there first; and then I will try to make it work also with the actors.  Neither approach is better.  I think the other approach is suited better to a certain type of drama. Because it tends to be also my own work, and I am being self-critical here, it can be a bit stiff or feel on wheels at times.  If the shot progression is too planned out, at least to me, it feels like I knew what I was doing, but it could feel a bit more fluid.  It’s just how I am, my personality.  I just saw Sunrise for the first time, and this film is just about shots.  It’s just about imagery.  Even many of the silent filmmakers, especially the expressionists, were all about having a progression of shots, movement within a shot, and placement of the characters, instead of getting a sense of the naturalistic scene, which then we find a way to shoot.     
Agnolucci:  Is there a reason why you chose to shoot on the Arri Alexa?
Kleinert: No.  Actually, yes, there is a reason—it was the best camera we had at our school.  I actually would have loved to shoot it on 16 mm.  But I am really happy with the results.  Arri also has a very high ASA level, about 1,600 without adding too much noise to the picture, so it helped as we didn’t have a very large light kit.  With 16mm we would have a lot more grain and noise.  But it was also a financial decision, because the film stock and its development would have been far more expensive than the Alexa.
Agnolucci: The sound and musical score amplified the intensity of each scene and added a color palate to the narrative.  How closely do you work with the sound department?  What was the reason for adding the final Swedish song at the close of the film?
Kleinert: The main reason is that I really love that song.  They are one of my favorite bands.  Also for the reason that it contains this transformative quality to it, like cross-dressing, where one is willing to make a fool out of oneself.  I found this in their live concerts as well.  They make this weird Swedish glam pop music, which could be considered, even by music critics, as embarrassing.  It’s so on the nose, like Schlagerfrom Germany.  They come from a very sincere and honest place. I really love it.  Interestingly, I had tried to use other songs before that one, and it was my producer, Linus, who suggested I use that song there.  He said that he knew I really wanted to use that song, and it was so nice of him to assure me that they will make sure I could use it, that they will make it happen. 
Also with Conrad, the composer of the score, I worked with him very closely.  With him it was more about figuring out how romantic the score could be.  I wanted to complement the scary aspects of the film, not by having the music and the score completely scary, but instead by giving it this pop-like longing, romantic quality as well.  Also, for sound design, I worked with someone I have worked with before, but I also did a lot myself.  I think other people might have done a better job, but I think that’s how I am, and I have so much fun with it, and I tend to do a lot of it myself.  I put a lot of layout sound in my first visual picture edit.  Other people just do the picture edit with the dialogue and then add sound later, but I can’t do that.  From the get-go, I will add sound to get the symphonic structure of the film.  For a sound designer, it might be easier this way, because I can explore my layout and sound design, and he knows where to set the beats.  The whole rhythm of it is already set out that way.  I’m a sound fiend, you could say.
Agnolucci:  Did you always picture the Samurai in a white dress, or was that the costume designer’s addition?
Kleinert: We were already thinking about the color.  White just works well with the flashlight use.  When you pull him out of the darkness, it should be something that reflects, is a bit whiter than white, so he burns out a bit, like he’s not under video safe-levels anymore.  It had to be white. We had tried with a black dress as well, but white made much more sense.   
Agnolucci:  I have only seen Der Samurai, and I am already eagerly anticipating what film you will be making next.  So what’s next?!
Kleinert: Interestingly, I am working on a television series right now.  I am in talks with the commissioning editor in Germany.  Nothing is set in stone, and these things, more often than not, don’t work out.  Der Samurai was supposed to be shown on a T.V. channel in Germany, and it didn’t work out; so we ended up doing it without them.  It’s a short, eight-episode series about a house and its inhabitants.  I won’t say much more.

Agnolucci:  Please list, and elaborate on, five films that have highly influenced you as a filmmaker and as a person?  What did they change about how you saw cinema, or how you envisioned the construction of a film?
Kleinert: I will most definitely leave some out!  From early childhood there would be two.  One is Ronia the Robber’s Daughter. it’s a Swedish children’s film that’s not very popular in the rest of the world.  It is about this girl, a daughter of the captain of a robber’s gang, and they live in the forest.  It’s about her upbringing with very dangerous, monstrous forest creatures.  Her father always sends her out in the woods to play and tells her to learn to confront these creatures.  I like this coming-of-age story as a process of facing dangerous situations and not being afraid of them.  It’s a scary film for kids—with crows that speak in scary voices and grab at her hair.  I like this feeling of personal growth, while facing adversaries and forces to compete against.  I think that’s engrained in my understanding of cinema.  I love showdowns, for example.  I love physical showdowns.  When all is said and done and there are just two people left, and it’s all or nothing. 
Another film that influenced me very much is E.T.  It came late to Eastern Germany, not in 1982 but in 1986, and I was so devastated when I saw it.  My mother had never seen me be so affected by a film so much, and she was scared by that.  She thought it’s irresponsible to submit children to that kind of emotional roller coaster.  For me, though, I kept looking for that.  Of course, I cried during the film, but to me that was a great cleansing experience, a catharsis.  It is also a film that is quite manipulative actually, but I don’t think in a bad way.  I don’t have anything against being manipulated in cinema, as long as I have the feeling that there is a sense, means, and a purpose to it.
Later on in my life, I would say Audition, by Takashi Miike.  I had not yet seen, what you would now call, a J-Horror film.  I liked the craziness of how the mood of the film swings at the midpoint, when this bag with this person inside of it suddenly drops.  That opened up a whole new world for me—of crazy cinema to explore.  Every film of his gave me something, even though many of them are not really good.  His is a kind of maverick filmmaking aesthetic, which I’m drawn to, but I don’t really apply.  My films tend to be divided by two sides.  There is the Spielberg side that wants to make a nice orderly film that looks good and that feels like a proper film.  And there is the other side that actually wants to go for this balls-out craziness.  Again, it’s a bit like Jakob and the Samurai, this contradiction that is within me.  Like Shinya Tsukamoto, who I then discovered, especially the Tetsuo films.
The Wicker Man (directed by Robin Hardy) is a film that I absolutely adore and that gave me the sense that a horror film doesn’t have to be scary in order to still be a great piece.  Now it feels like I only consume horror films, but it’s not the case.  Last year a film that did it for me was Paranoid Park (directed by Gus Van Sant).  It’s a lot more lyrical in its approach.  I love this and would like to be able to incorporate that more into my own work. 
—Marco Agnolucci 

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