Review: MICHAEL KOHLHAAS, A Sombre Crusade For Vengeance And Justice

James Marsh, Asian Editor
Arnaud des Pallieres adapts Heinrich von Kleist's hugely influential novel into a heartbreaking story of injustice and revenge in 16th Century France, centred around an incredible performance from Mads Mikkelsen.

Michael Kohlhaas (Mikkelsen), a respected horse trader and family man, is stopped on the road by soldiers in the employ of the region's new young Baron, and fined two of his finest mares. When Kohlhaas' attempts to appeal the decision are repeatedly dismissed, the situation quickly escalates and Kohlhaas sets out on a personal crusade to see his rights restored and horses returned. Events take an increasingly bloody and tragic turn as Kohlhaas incites rebellion in the local peasant population, until he has amassed a small army that terrorises the community.

Michael Kohlhaas is the second cinematic adaptation of Heinrich von Kleist's 1811 novella, which was itself written as a thinly-veiled criticism of Napoleon-era Prussia, and has its roots in a real incident that occurred in 16th Century Saxony (now Germany). French society has a history of the proletariat rising up against the nobility and aristocracy, but des Pallieres' film goes to great lengths to ensure that even in his darkest moments, the audience never strays far from Kohlhaas' side.

Mads Mikkelsen is typically fantastic in the title role, speaking flawless French - although letting his increasingly furrowed brow and penetrating stare speak for him just as often. Resonating with echoes of Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven, Michael Kohlhaas paints a picture of a capable man of action who has retreated into the respectability of family life. While never explicitly revealed, there is a suggestion that Kohlhaas has previous experience of combat and weapons, but is now content to breed horses and care for his wife and daughter. By nature, Kohlhaas is not a troublemaker, and is in fact a stickler for the law. Only when the petulance of the new Baron abolishes the old laws seemingly on a whim does Kohlhaas feel he has been treated unfairly. However, the further up the chain of command he pursues his case, the more he discovers the reach of the Baron's influence, or the simple disdain the nobility has for its people. 

Tragedy strikes when Kohlhaas is dissuaded from further action by his doting wife (Delphine Chuillot), who persuades her husband to let her ride into town and plead with the Princess woman-to-woman. When that decision fails catastrophically, Kohlhaas has nobody left to restrain him, and so begins his personal crusade against the royal family, accompanied at first by only his own servants, and forced to take his own young daughter along for the ride.

While certainly a slow burn, Michael Kohlhaas creates a wonderful sense of place, exploring the open barren countryside as much through the sounds of the wildlife as with sweeping vistas of wide open space or dense forest. Very few sequences take place anywhere that could be called a town or populated community. Almost every scene is accompanied by the buzzing of flies, the rustling of leaves or the incessant clomping of horses' hooves as Kohlhaas rampages somewhat aimlessly around the countryside, searching for an almost intangible force of authority that has such a crippling hold over him. But for every shot of blustery, windswept wilderness, there are as many lingering close-ups of Mikkelsen's increasingly craggy and weather-beaten features, as if we are searching inside of him for a justifiable goal to his cause just as he scours the land for justice. 

Beyond Mikkelsen, who is in almost every scene of the film, there is strong support from the aforementioned Chuillot as his level-headed wife and young Melusine Mayance as Lisbeth, his daughter. She rarely proves much of a hindrance to her father, beyond simply being there and therefore in potential danger, but Mayance's quiet, measured performance serves as a lingering reminder of who Kohlhaas once was, and how far he has come from the normality of his old life. 

Along the way there are cameos from recognisable stars of European Cinema such as Bruno Ganz, Denis Lavant and Sergio Lopez, underpinning just how different the borders were drawn through this part of the world back then. Characters even switch from French to German and Spanish during the film, occasionally for reasons that are not immediately clear. Beyond the immersive sound design and striking cinematography from Adrien Debackere and Jeanne Lapoirie, the film also features a fantastically primitive and minimalist score from Martin Wheeler and The Witches, which foreshadows Kohlhaas' fall from respectability.

Since its premiere in competition at Cannes back in May, there has been remarkably little buzz surrounding Michael Kohlhaas, short of its Golden Iris win at the Brussels European Film Festival. This is both surprising and disappointing, as I found Michael Kohlhaas to be an incredibly powerful and absorbing experience, bolstered by a powerhouse performance of measured, understated brilliance from Mads Mikkelsen. Hopefully 2014 will see the film find a wider and more appreciative audience as it opens theatrically around the world, as it works brilliantly as a thrilling examination of vengeance and entitlement, an intricate and heartbreaking character study of one man's fall from grace, but also as an allegory of social injustice that will speak volumes to audiences everywhere. 

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