Writers: Christelle Berthevas, Arnaud des Pallières
Starring: Mads Mikkelsen, Mélusine Mayance, Delphine Chuillot, David Kross, Bruno Ganz, Denis Lavant
Synopsis: After an unfair deal, horse trader Michael Kohlhaas (Mikkelsen) attempts to seek justice and compensation. A court hearing is disregarded and in desperation he sets out to wage war on the government and citizens who have wronged him.
Sampling various epochs and languages, Mads Mikkelsen’s selection of roles always finds him in an interesting setting. Michael Kohlhaas is his second period drama in a year (the other being the outstanding A Royal Affair), but instead of corsets and courtrooms, Arnaud des Pallières’s finds him wielding swords and riding across the French landscape. It’s not as action-heavy as it sounds; rather, the film is solemn and slow-moving, exploring the motivations of revolt.
After being dealt a dab hand in a horse trade, what goes from being an irritating dupe turns into a bloody and morbid affair. Michael Kohlhaas’ wife is murdered and he is left with his daughter, urging him to avenge his lover and alter his child’s future. When Mikkelsen is handed a character with a dilemma or a strong impulse, he nails it every time. Kohlhaas is a rich character already revered in Germany where the story has been read for over a century. In this respect, Mikkelsen has a history of interpretation and analysis to look at in order to play Heinrich von Kleist’s protagonist, enabling him to embody the eponymous hero compellingly. Mikkelsen has not shown himself as a leader in many films, adding to the interest in Michael Kohlhaas where he instructs and commands. With all this, there is still the tenderness often found in his work that moved away from being typecast as another Bond villain-type. The last shot, squarely framed around Mikkelsen’s forlorn face, promotes the actor’s charisma and skill unlike any other so far.
Executed pretty well, there is an awful series of edits in one of the pivotal moments that does irreparable damage. Difficult enough to follow the new group of characters at this stage in the film, and focused on some important action, the editing is too rough. As the narrative calms slightly, this problem is forgotten, partially.
Other than that, the music (an elegant and melodic score that, like the end shot, lingers long after) and imagery is magnificent. Novelistic in its DNA, it flows forward with a definite progression of character and themes. The reason for disequilibrium – a swindled horse deal – may seem strange and unfitting for a period epic but it’s analysed in such a way that you feel strongly connected to Kohlhaas’ cause. Obviously aided by Mads Mikkelsen, the film may not be worth much without its lead but as it stands, it’s powerful and gorgeous.
****is competing in the Official Competition selection at Cannes 2013. Also posted on LiveForFilms