Thursday, April 30, 2015

The Way of Der Samurai

On April 9th, Peccadillo Pictures and The Duke Mitchell Film Club hosted the DVD launch of FrightFest hit Der Samurai with an evening of dance moves and decapitations at London’s Prince Charles Cinema with director Till Kleinert in attendance.

(Here’s the pitch for Der Samurai: A transvestite with a samurai sword carves a bloody swathe through a provincial German town, and the only person who can stop him is Jakob, a young police officer struggling to get to grips with his sexuality.)

The Duke’s own Evrim Ersoy introduced Kleinert, who cued up his film with a selection of clips that weren't so much inspirations as they were touchstones along the path that brought him to Der Samurai.

First up was an excerpt from the balletic, ballistic roaring rampage of revenge John Wick. Specifically, the moment early on when Russian mob boss Michael Nyqvist is explaining to his reckless son exactly why he fucked up by crossing "that fucking nobody" just before all manner of bloody retribution is unleashed..."They call him Baba Yaga"...

Kleinert pointed out why this scene, intended to show exactly why John Wick is so dangerous, doesn’t play so well in certain parts of the world, where Baba Yaga conjures up a very different, unintended set of memories and associations. I confess that I was unaware of these connotations, until I saw this:

Afterwards, I decided to cure my ignorance with a bit of judicious Googling. From the Wikipedia page for Baba Yaga - "In Slavic folklore, Baba Yaga is a supernatural being (or one of a trio of sisters of the same name) who appears as a deformed and/or ferocious-looking woman. Baba Yaga flies around in a mortar, wields a pestle, and dwells deep in the forest in a hut usually described as standing on chicken legs (or sometimes a single chicken leg)."

Crucially, in relation to Der Samurai, there is a tradition that Baba Yaga is occasionally played by a man in drag….

Next up: the incongruous trailer mash-up of the visuals from The Sword and the Dragon cut to the audio track of 300: Rise of an Empire. The first Soviet movie filmed in CinemaScope (and also known in it’s UK cut as The Epic Hero and the Beast), Kleinert showed the trailer to give a flavour of the film’s visuals, as the mash-up stripped away the tone and made it sound like something completely different...

Kleinert then introduced the trailer for his first cinema disappointment - the film he went to see that, for the first time ever, made him think “No...that’s not good enough” - Super Mario Bros.

The significance of Super Mario Bros. to Kleinert was two-fold. Firstly, his dissatisfaction with the film marked the development of his nascent critical faculties. On top of that, he regards the film as an early example of a trend that has now become all-too commonplace - the grim ‘n’ gritty "Nolanisation" of children's characters.

I was fortunate (if that’s the right word) to see a 35mm print of Super Mario Bros. at the Prince Charles as part of their Good Bad Movie Club strand in 2013, and at the time I wrote the following capsule review:

At one point in Super Mario Bros., Dennis Hopper says: "Do you know what I love about mud? It's clean and it's dirty at the same time". Which serves as quite a neat metaphor for the dichotomy at the heart of the film. It looks like a lot of money was spent on it...and yet it looks dirt-cheap, bargain basement and slapdash at the same time. It's fantastically ill-conceived on almost every level, but you can still see little flashes of the idiosyncratic worldview that Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel brought to their creation Max Headroom. And on an objective basis, this is a terrible movie, but I'd be lying if I said that I didn't find it terrifically entertaining.

(If you are remotely interested in the deeply troubled gestation and birth of Super Mario Bros., you should definitely take a look at Karina Longworth’s article at Grantland on “unearthing a major disaster to learn the lessons held within”.)

From a disappointment to a success - the trailer for John Woo’s Face/Off:

The great thing about the trailer is that the first minute is footage shot specifically for it. The great thing about Face/Off (and the thing that takes us back to Der Samurai) is that it takes an absurd premise and plays it straight - and it works. Kleinert maintains that it is still one of his favourite action movies. (Interestingly - there’s another unspoken resonance here with Der Samurai, in the mirroring of the two leads).

One of Kleinert’s favourite things in movies is dancing. Specifically, people dancing alone. Dancing as self-expression, that moment when a character sloughs off self-conscious awkwardness and let’s it all go. This was illustrated by two clips featuring Denis Lavant. The first one has Lavant dancing to David Bowie's Modern Love in Leos Carax's Mauvais Sang

The other one features Lavant dancing to Corona's Rhythm of the Night at the very end of Claire Denis' Beau Travail:

It’s worth noting that there was a distinct lack of horror in the influences presented. Warning: I can remedy that, but this next bit constitutes a pretty big SPOILER for the end of the movie. If you don’t want to be spoiled, stop reading…!

Kleinert’s original ending for Der Samurai had the Samurai gunned down by police, but he felt that it was unsatisfying and didn't quite work. He solved the problem by borrowing from Eric Red and Robert Harmon’s The Hitcher, in which the resolution comes down to a final confrontation between just the two leads: Jakob faces the Samurai alone. Killing him means that, on some level, they both attain their goals and reach a final, mutual understanding. (An ending that also put me in mind of Jeremy Lovering’s In Fear).

I found all of this preamble and background fascinating and it only served to enhance the experience of watching the film itself, which turned out to be a stylish, smart, distinctive, gore-flecked blast. Two blood-encrusted thumbs up!

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