Director: Arnaud des Pallieres
Cast: Mads Mikkelsen, Bruno Ganz, Sergi Lopez, Denis Lavant, Roxane Duran, Melusine Mayance, Delphine Chuillot
122min Drama French/German with English subtitles
Heinrich von Kleist’s 1811 novella has been adapted a number of times for the Big Screen and TV capturing the imagination of various filmmakers with its rich cultural background. In 1937, Max Haufler (The Trail) took this tale of a 16th Century horse-trader and produced a black and white version. More recently Volker Schlondorff cast David Warner and Michael Gothard (The Devils) in the leads in Michael Kohlhaas: Der Rebell. The only reason to see this slim and overlong version is for the magnificent locations and magnetic central presence of Mads Mikkelsen in the title role. That said, it’s possibly not his most resounding performance to date although it captivated the jury at the Brussels film festival this year, where the film won the top award.
Themes of justice and revenge are tossed around in the windswept widescreen wilderness untethered by any real historical or political reference to the social upheaval of the Peasant’s Revolt and the Protestant Catholic conflict – massive elements of political change with rocked the 16th century Europe and made the original work so resonant. And despite judicious castings of Denis Lavant (as the theologist), Bruno Ganz (as the Governor) and Sergi Lopez all lending their heavyweight support, it all feels rather hollow and underwritten. To confuse matters, des Pallieres has transposed the drama from Germany to France, for some unknown reason, leaving Mikkelsen with the task of having to speak French and master horse-husbandry. That said he does his best, giving a haughty and charismatic thrust to his portrayal of a loving family man eaking out an existence on the land.
But when the landowner, the arrogant Baron (Swann Arlaud) thwarts and humiliates him by suddenly introduces a tollgate on Kohlhaas’s regular route to sell his lovingly-reared steers events take a sinister turn made worse by the discovery that his prized horses are being brutalised by the Baron’s henchmen. To top it all, his wife Judith (Delphine Chuillot) is tragically murdered on her way to gain support from a timid Princesse d’Angouleme (Roxane Duran). Kohlhaas strikes out for justice, raising a rebel army of supporters (among whom are a one-armed Sergi Lopez and a typically subversive Denis Lavant) who rather wish they had stayed at home quietly by the fire when push comes to shove. At this point, they try to persuade Kohlhaas to trust the outcome of his brave stand for the common man, to God’s Will.
So Arnaud des Pallieres offers us a magnificent visual spectacle of Mad’s cinematically-chiselled features set against the lichen-covered wilds of the Rhone and Languedoc locations taking in the Chartreuse Pierre-Chatet (Ain), the Chateau du Cheylard, (Gard) and dominated by Martin Wheeler’s resounding original soundtrack. MT
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