Michael Kohlhaas

(France, Germany, 2013, 122 mins, DCP)
CAST Mads Mikkelsen, Mélusine Mayance, Delphine Chuillot, David Kross, Bruno Ganz, Denis Lavant
PROD Serge Lalou
SCR Christelle Berthevas, Arnaud des Pallières
CAM Adrien Debackere, Jeanne Lapoirie
EDS Sandie Bompar, Arnaud des Pallières
MUS Martin Wheeler, The Witches
PROD CO Les Films d’Ici / Looks Filmproduktionen


“Toward the middle of the 16th century, there lived on the banks of the Havel a horsedealer by the name of Michael Kohlhaas… One of the most upright and at the same time one of the most terrible men of his day… The world would have every reason to bless his memory, if he had not carried one virtue to excess: his sense of justice turned him into a brigand and a murderer.”

So begins Heinrich von Kleist’s classic novella about principles, law and revenge. As the book’s synopsis reads: “Based on actual historic events, this thrilling saga of violence and retribution bridged the gap between medieval and modern literature, and speaks so profoundly to the contemporary spirit that it has been the basis of numerous plays, movies, and novels. It has become, in fact, a classic tale: that of the honourable man forced to take the law into his own hands. In this incendiary prototype, a minor tax dispute intensifies explosively, until the eponymous hero finds the forces of an entire kingdom, and even the great Martin Luther, gathered against him. But soon even Luther comes to echo the growing army of peasants asking, Isn’t Kohlhaas right?”

It’s extremely helpful to keep Kleist’s deceptively simple book in mind while viewing Arnaud des Pallières’ atmospheric and sturdy adaptation, which is transposed to 16th-century Cévennes and stars a commanding Mads Mikkelsen. Pallières has spoken of it as a medieval Western but its critical questions—Can terrorism be justified? Is the state monopoly on violence the basis for civilization?—reflect extremely contemporary concerns.

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Rebeccca Gordon
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