Unpicking the tragic deadlock of a wronged man out for justice, Arnaud des Pallières’ Michael Kohlhaas is a fine tribute to people power and ruthless idealism.
Noblesse Oblige by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Based on the novella by German playwright Heinrich von Kleist, Age Of Uprising: The Legend Of Michael Kohlhaas is the deliciously ironic tale of a man whose indefatigable (and ultimately successful) quest for justice leads him into a deadly tussle with the aristocracy and a deadlock of incompatible ideals. Relocated to France it’s the rights of man on trial, and Arnaud des Pallières’ film faithfully adapts Kleist’s themes (the individual versus the state, corruption and justice, the conflicting personal and public duties of a father and citizen and the impossibility of personal satisfaction in a just revolt), but with its continuously pulsating drumbeat beckoning towards a violent catharsis, war is inevitable between the citizen’s reason and the capricious violence of the nobility.
A private landowner and horse breeder, Michael Kohlhaas (Mads Mikkelsen) is wronged by a young baron who charges him a toll to cross his land, unleashes his dogs on his manservant César and steals his horses. Taking his best stallions to the Governor (Bruno Ganz) he returns to find his prized livestock worked and bloodied and his kinsman beaten. And when the courts fail to bring him justice and his wife is killed at the Princess’s court, Kohlhaas sells his estate to raise an army and hold the influential baron to account. After a short war on his neighbours, Kohlhaas is visited by the Princess and agrees to a ceasefire, only to find himself arrested for disturbing the peace but his plea for justice finally heard.
It’s a crisp irony that Arnaud des Pallières has chosen to adapt for the French screen this novella from Heinrich von Kleist – an officer in the Prussian army fighting Napoleon’s forces and virulently anti-French. And apart from its relocation from Saxony to the lustrous valleys and mountains of the Cévennes, one of the most startling diversions from von Kleist’s original is the inclusion of Princess Marguerite de Valois, Queen of Navarre in the place of the Elector of Saxony. Unmannered and unmade up, this sober princess is a far cry from Isabelle Adjani’s beautiful and wily Reine Margot, exiled to the country beyond the lusty pleasures of the capital or the bloody thrills of the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre. And even if her gender prevents von Kleist’s railing against the old boys’ club of the original, she is nevertheless the embodiment of the state and aristocratic might – the higher power Kohlhaas turns to for redress. It’s one man and his horse against the wildness of youth and the arrogance of aristocracy, on a quest for justice and equality for all. And not just all men.
Kohlhaas’ tempered revolutionary zeal and thirst for justice gains however a metaphysical purpose through his conversations with the priest (Denis Lavant) – Luther in von Kleist’s original, as they discuss the merits of Christian patience and suffering over vigilante revolt. But Kohlhaas cannot be shaken from his determination to see justice done – a resolve which reaches almost fanatical heights as he sells his home and puts his family at risk for this lofty ideal, unable to swallow the humiliation or the loss of his livestock. The question haunts the film, why does Kohlhaas go to such extremes to have this wrong righted? And as the steadfast man on fire, Mads Mikkelsen is superb – a steely family man on a reckless mission to defend the rights of the common man. And with its lush French setting of rocky mountaintops and misty valleys, Arnaud des Pallières’ Michael Kohlhaas is infused with a frisson of pre-revolutionary zeal in its final-reel catch 22 in which justice is finally done and Kohlhaas recompensed, albeit with a blade pressing at his neck for breaching the peace.
Like Mikkelsen’s Struensee in A Royal Affair, Michael Kohlhaas is another story of a revolutionary radical on route to the gallows. But with jaw-droppingly stunning cinematography and achingly understated performances, Arnaud des Pallières’ Michael Kohlhaas is a symphony of beautiful imagery – from the natural simplicity of Kohlhaas’ mare giving birth, to his wife’s corpse thundering through the forest cross-cut with his daughter running desperately behind, or the fixed camera of the final scene as Kohlhaas is stripped of his shirt, cut from his torso with painful slowness, to leave his neck clear for the executioner’s axe. Through Kohlhaas’ theological conversation with the priest, Des Pallières invokes Bergman’s Through A Glass Darkly – and even if his film couldn’t be much further from the Swedish director’s austere restraint, Michael Kohlhaas: The Age Of Uprising does nevertheless offer an alternative way of seeing the world – Kleist’s oh-so-Prussian Weltanschauung made French in this robust and handsome elegy to fallen pride.
Age Of Uprising: The Legend Of Michael Kohlhaas is released on 3rd January 2013 in the UK