Saturday, November 15, 2014


Don't blame director Arnaud des Pallieres for the video-gamey title of the American release of his film. It was just plain Michael Kohlhaas to him, just as it was to Volker Schlondorff back in 1969. Both films adapt the legend of a minor German rebel as it had been canonized by the novelist Heinrich von Kleist 200 years ago. Schlondorff's film (here's my review) was a product of its time, a blend of New German Cinema and late-Hollywood risk-taking in the "history of cruelty" mode popular back then. Retelling the story now could easily have become an excuse to tart up the action with modern effects, but Pallieres resists that temptation. Instead, he films the story's violence with a cold objectivity and an absence of choreography that are bound to disappoint people expecting something "cool" from that awful American title. Yet there is, I suspect, a strong American influence over this new Kohlhaas film, and if I'm right it's a very good influence.

They killed his wife and hurt his horses; now Michael Kohlhaas will fight!

You can read my review of the 1969 film for more detail on the Kohlhaas story, but to sum it up, our hero (now played by Mads Mikkelsen, succeeding David Warner) has had his rights and his horses violated, and his wife has been killed while protesting on his behalf, so he starts a private war against the local baron who wronged him, and the war threatens to escalate into a full-scale political rising. Michael Kohlhaas remains apolitical, however. He'll lay down his arms and send home the small army that has rallied around him if only the baron will personally restore Michael's two black horses to full health and their former beauty.

In the most noteworthy story switch from the 1969 film, Kohlhaas negotiates not with a male potentate (nor with Martin Luther) but with a female ruler, a young princess (Roxane Duran) whose guileless if not stupid appearance hides a calculating and treacherous, yet on some level still honorable character. She must destroy Kohlhaas to restore order and set an example, but she makes sure that he gets what he'd asked for all along before he dies. In place of Luther the 2013 film gives us an anonymous Theologian (Denis Lavant) who chides Kohlhaas for his violent self-indulgence. Unimpressed by Kohlhaas's execution of one of his own men for looting, the Theologian challenges our hero's assumed right to rebel and his presumption of taking justice for himself when God alone, ultimately can judge. While the 1969 Kohlhaas is a kind of figurehead for an all-out rebellion reflecting the mood of 1969, the 2013 model is more intimate, arguably more morally serious, and it seems to owe many of its distinguishing qualities to Clint Eastwood.

I think it was the emphasis on horses that clicked things together for me. While the figure of Coalhouse Walker Jr. in the novel and film Ragtime are the most obvious American version of the Kohlhaas legend, Eastwood's Unforgiven, written by David Webb Peoples, is arguably a reflection of the Kohlhaas theme. In Unforgiven, horses are proposed by the local marshal as suitable compensation to a pimp for the disfiguring of one of his whores, and one of the cowboys held responsible for the disfigurement tries to offer the horses directly to the prostitute as a gesture of personal repentance. In this case, the whores as a group refuse the gesture and demand revenge instead, offering a bounty to whoever will kill the cowboys. Peoples (if not Eastwood) may have understood this as an ironic variation on Kohlhaas: the one gesture Kohlhaas would have accepted as a peace offering is spurned by the whores of Big Whiskey. But while the influence of the Kohlhaas legend on Unforgiven is purely speculative, the visual influence of Unforgiven on Arnaud des Pallieres seems hard to deny. The unromanticized violence: check. The bleak landscape: check. The resemblance is closest when Kohlhaas and his young daughter watch his men ride down upon and massacre a wagon train. We see the action from the Kohlhaases' perspective, at a great distance that refuses us any visceral thrill from the killing. As father and daughter watch, she asks him why he's fighting. For his horses? For his wife and her mother? Michael has no answer. Meanwhile, his faithful minion Cesar (David Bennent), who had earlier survived an attack from the baron's dogs, breaks from the attack and rides back up to Kohlhaas's position, only to fall dying to the ground. It's strongly reminiscent of the great "We've all got it coming" scene in Unforgiven, when William Munny and the Schofield Kid talk about killing on a hilltop as one of the whores slowly rides their way with terrible news.  Eastwood is a popular and honored director but doesn't seem to have inspired many stylistic followers, but Michael Kohlhaas hints that there's at least one out there.

With his squinty slits of eyes Mads Mikkelsen is more a Robert Mitchum than a Clint Eastwood but his own enigmatic charisma is essential for portraying a character who may well be an enigma to himself, a man who can't acknowledge and may not even recognize his deepest motives. He's a powerful figure who bends yet never quite breaks under the weight of conscience and the pressure of religion and custom. As Kohlhaas's daughter, Melusine Mayance proves herself a formidable child actor by holding her own with Mikkelsen. As the Princess, Roxane Duran isn't on screen much but she brings an almost eerie presence to the picture, dressed in plain black, that makes it plausible that people might have trembled before royalty. If the look of the film as well as its themes bring Eastwood to mind, Jeanne Lapoirie's cinematography has much to do with that. If "Age of Uprising" makes you think of a video game, Lapoirie's imagery is just about the opposite of that. I can't stress enough how stupid that American title sounds to me, but I'm happy to report that few films recently have been as superior to their titles, if you accept Age of Uprising as its title, as this one is.

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