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Zack Mosley [Celluloid 10.15.13] France drama history

Mads Mikkelsen? The Middle Ages? Revenge? I'm all fucking over it!

16th century, the Cévennes mountain range in south-central France. Michael Kohlhaas (Mads Mikkelsen) is a successful horse-trader who encounters a Baron and his men on a bridge he uses regularly. The Baron demands two of Kohlhaas' horses as collateral in order to cross. When Kohlhaas returns for his horses, he finds them abused, malnourished and worked to exhaustion. Stubbornly refusing to brush the incident off, he sues the Baron, and the official response at Court is to straight up murder his wife. Kohlhaas goes rogue, amassing a small army in the woods and terrorizing his enemies with strategic attacks. He attempts to maintain a code of ethics, convincing himself that he is waging a just campaign. But gradually it becomes clear that he is responsible for his fair share of misery, including the impact his inevitable capture and execution will have on his young daughter. Is it worth corrupting the soul to shed blood over a matter of principle?

From this plot description, you might expect a rousing historical epic, but Michael Kohlhaas is very quiet and subdued compared to, say, Braveheart. The initial catalyst of Kohlhaas' rebellion is a piddling thing, a small affront that he can afford to ignore. That's part of the point. So anyone hoping for exaggerated Valhalla Rising style violence or big Ridley Scott style battle scenes should brace themselves for disappointment. The “action” is shot without much emphasis on the violence, sometimes scenes are dimly lit, choppily edited, and hard to follow. People are dispatched quietly with crossbows or hanged with funereal solemnity. Michael Kohlhaas doesn't fuck around.

I don't want to come off like a bloodthirsty Roman Colosseumgoer here though, I appreciate the measured intentions of director Arnaud des Pallières. Adapting an 1811 novella by Heinrich von Kleist with co-writer Christelle Berthevas, Pallières has transposed the action from Germany to France but preserved the of the moody existentialism of the source material. There are plenty of connections to make with modern society, although it would be hard to glean any specific commentary from the murky conclusions of the story. Kohlhaas functions as a sympathetic Robin Hood-style terrorist against aristocratic tyrants, but the characterizations eschew broad strokes for shades of grey. The Baron comes off like the one bad apple in the bunch, although he is far from a mustache-twirling Sheriff of Nottingham archetype. A foppish coward, he is no match for the indomitable will of Kohlhaas, and spends most of the movie hiding from him. The French crown comes off as exceedingly reasonable, and "The Princess" (Roxane Duran) gnashes far less teeth than Patrick McGoohan in Braveheart. This film is more interested in moral concerns than political concerns, the specific human cost of fanatical crusades against tyranny.

I'm fairly sure that Mads Mikkelsen can play this type of role in his sleep at this point, but he delivers his usual consummate asskickery regardless. The supporting cast features some legends, including Bruno Ganz in a small role as "The Governor" and Denis Lavant as "The Theologist," who makes an impassioned attempt to talk Kohlhaas down from his moral precipice. The Cévennes are a character in and of themselves, the wind-swept crags and bluffs acting as metaphors for the inner landscapes of Kohlhaas' soul. One can see the appeal of a stoic, thoroughly Teutonic story like this (Volker Schlöndorff also made a version in 1969 called Michael Kohlhaas – Der Rebell) but somehow Michael Kohlhaas adds up to something slightly less than the sum of its parts. It is a perfectly competent historical drama that doesn't quite muster up transcendence.

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