Michael Kohlhaas (Arnaud des Pallières – France/Germany) 122 minutes
Arnaud des Pallières’ adaptation of Heinrich von Kleist’s 1811 novella is one of the most surprisingly entertaining films of the year. A muscular literary adaptation, it breathes new life into the period film, ably helped by the presence of Mads Mikkelsen in the title role (you imagine that Mikkelsen caught des Pallières’ eye in fustian in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Valhalla Rising). Kleist’s text was itself based on the true story of the 16th-century merchant Hans Kohlhase, who went on a vengeful rampage throughout Saxony when he failed to get justice for the impounding of his horses.
Des Pallières’ film switches the location to France and largely Protestant Cévennes region in the same era but the film retains a heavily Germanic air. Mikkelsen’s French, which he learned for the role, has a cross-Rhine stiffness to it (and he does at one point speak German too) and among the cast are regulars of German and Swiss cinema, David Bennent and Bruno Ganz (both regulars in the movies of Volker Schlöndorff, who himself directed a previous version of the novel in 1969, with David Warner in the title role). The action is otherwise unchanged though, with Kohlhaas victim of an arbitrary seizure of his horses by the servants of a powerful nobleman. He is promised satisfaction but the promise is broken and then his wife, who intercedes with the nobleman’s wife, is sent back to Kohlhaas half-dead.
Kohlhaas’ revolt is an early exercise in existentialism, as he takes the law into his own hands, becoming the avatar of a post-feudal bourgeois society. Though the righteousness of his cause is acknowledged by all his methods are condemned – one great scene sees Denis Lavant as a peripatetic clergyman who tries to get Kohlhaas to turn himself in, a character based on Martin Luther, who intervened in a similar fashion with Hans Kohlhase. Though Kohlhaas is right and must get justice, he must also have justice dispensed unto him – it is no surprise to learn that Kafka was a great admirer of Kleist’s book.
Michael Kohlhaas is a bracing, wintry tale that is quick with the texture and sensations of the late Middle Ages. Des Pallières directs at a brisk pace and, unusually in this day and age, it is a film two hours long that does not seem longer. Once again, Mikkelsen is fantastic, a cerebral presence in an action role. And, most remarkably for a literary adaptation, it is a persuasive examination of a historical epoch without being overbearing and pretentious.