MICHAEL KOHLHAAS. Starring: Mads Mikkelsen, Delphine Chuillot, Melusien Mayance, Swann Arlaud, Bruno Ganz, and Denis Lavant. Directed by Armaud des Pallieres. Rated MA 15+. Restricted. (Strong sex scene). 117min.
This is a subtitled, French-German film based on the life of Michael Kohlhaas, as depicted in the novel of the same name by Heinrich Von Kleist. It was nominated for the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 2013.
The period-film tells the story of a horse dealer in the 16th. century. Kohlhaas (Mads Mikkelsen) is the head of a happy family, loved by his wife, Judith (Delphine Chuillot) and his daughter, Lisbeth (Melusien Mayance), and he gives emotionally to them in return. On his way to the market, part of his property is confiscated by a greedy, arrogant local Baron (Swann Arlaud), who treats him unjustly. The Baron takes two of Kohlhaas's strongest and best horses, as an illegal tolling charge for using a bridge as a passage-way.
Kohlhaas puts his complaint in the hands of a lawyer (Bruno Ganz) with no success. The legal system is corrupt, and injustice is everywhere. He makes three attempts to use the legal system, and his wife dies after coming home beaten brutally from pleading his case. In desperation, he takes the situation into his own hands and seeks justice through violence. Accordingly, he mounts an armed force and goes on a rampage through the surrounding villages to restore his rights.
The cinematography in the film is wonderful. The scenes are photographed sparingly and moodily to give wind-swept landscapes majesty and grandeur. Their impact is lyrical and dramatic.
Mads Mikkelsen took the lead in the superb "The Hunt" (2012) about a child's false allegation of sexual abuse against her teacher. In this movie, he is virtually in every scene, and his acting projects great presence. The film raises intriguing and troubling questions about the personal cost of taking a position on principle. How flexible should one be in pursuing what one thinks of as right? What are the consequences for others of a principled stand? Can vengeance ever be righteous? And, one of most difficult questions of all - "What justifies the use of violence morally as a means to an end?" The film brings some, but not all, of these questions to an emotional conclusion when Kohlhass sacrifices his own life for the injustices he has caused, asking forgiveness from his distraught and angry daughter.
This is a beautifully looking movie, full of poetic imagery. It is measured and slow-paced, and It confronts major ethical issues relevant to actions motivated by principle. It also achieves a powerful connection between the quality of its cinematography and its dramatic impact.
Kohlhaas knows God would not approve of his actions, but the film says relatively little about the alternatives. His journey to restore justice by violence is flawed morally, and the patient exploration of Kohlhaas's integrity in the first half of the film moves too quickly into vengeance and retribution for the wrongs he has received. There are some significant moments for debate, however, along the way. A centre-piece for the entire film is Kohlhaas's encounter with a priest (Denis Lavant) who discusses with Kohlhaas the reasons for his actions, and why he has been responsible for the deaths of so many people. The priest must come to grips with the fact that Kohlhaas is a Man of God who has gone the wrong way, and we are asked to consider whether Kohlhaas deserves the priest's, and God's, forgiveness.
This is a movie that is austere and tightly controlled in its story-telling. In tone and style, it reminds one of Ingmar Bergman's "Through a Glass Darkly" (1961), which the film references explicitly in its opening scenes when Kohlhaas refers to the phrase in his Bible, which he reads constantly. The Bible tells him to forgive his enemies.
This is a quality movie, that is visually interesting, deeply absorbing, morally fascinating, and greatly to be admired.
Peter W Sheehan is Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting
Released 20th. March, 2014.