Michael Kohlhaas is, originally, a celebrated German novella from 1810 by Heinrich von Kleist, which has however never been adapted to film until now.
Michael Kohlhaas, portrayed by Mads Mikkelsen, is a well-to-do horse merchant in 16th century Angouleme. One day a local baron cheats him of two fine horses, and Kohlhaas refuses to accept it. He brings all his personal resources to bear in first suing the corrupt baron, and then appealing directly to the princess of Angouleme, sister to the king of France. Kohlhaas’s wife, Judith, talks him into letting her bring the case before the princess, but she returns beaten and bloodied and soon dies of her injuries. Kohlhaas, enraged, then gathers a small army of servants and malcontents and mounts an attack on the convent where the baron has gone into hiding. The baron escapes in disguise, and Kohlhaas succeeds in building a still bigger army, until the princess herself is forced to deal with him. He receives a letter from the princess telling him to disband his army, and then he will have a fair hearing. She seems to be trustworthy, but unfortunately one of Kohlhaas’s former soldiers did not lay down his arms, and the agreement, being violated, falls to pieces. Kohlhaas and his young daughter, Lisbeth, must flee across the rugged landscape, pursued by the princess’ soldiers. The laconic and long-winded finale effectively maintains the doubt in the viewer’s mind as to what will happen.
A French/German co-production, Age of Uprising: The Legend of Michael Kohlhaas is a very European movie. Its visuals seem clearly inspired by Valhalla Rising (2009), especially as far as the wind-blown highland-like landscape is concerned. Age of Uprising gives us plentiful amounts of dark clouds and very loud gales of whistling winds across a rocky and grassy but otherwise barren countryside. There are elements of ”slow cinema” here and there, but not in an egregious manner (except perhaps for the end scene, where even Kohlhaas himself must ask, ”Are we waiting for something?”).
Age of Uprising is a decent historical/literary movie, but it has shortcomings, mainly of the directorial kind. I am not certain whether this is attributable to inexperience or just a certain continental European style, but there are quite a number of characters which are not introduced, situations which are not clearly shown (such as who is present in the given scene) or explained, and transitions between scenes which are anything but smooth. As a result, the viewer must sometimes put in quite an effort to follow the goings-on, and whether this is intentional or not I think it significantly detracts from the accesibility of the story-flow. One might argue, I suppose, that this is all part of a deliberate attempt to make the story seem more ruggedly realistic and authentically chaotic, and less like a conventional narrative. If so, however, it did not in my opinion work particularly well. But maybe I am spoiled by big-budget Hollywood productions.
At any rate, what can one do but admire Mads Mikkelsen? He might be a terrible accent away from Christoph Waltz, but other than that he could be said to be in a similar league. European to the core, Mikkelsen does not shy away from roles where he has to speak German (The Door), French (Age of Uprising) and even Russian (Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky) – besides English and his native Danish, of course. That is just cool.
Age of Uprising: The Legend of Michael Kohlhaas is out on DVD in the UK on March 10. Extras on the disc consist of a trailer and an interview with the director.
Director: Arnaud des Pallières
Cast: Mads Mikkelsen, Mélusine Mayance, Bruno Ganz, Denis Lavant, Delphine Chuillot, David Kross, Roxane Duran and others.
Runtime: 122 min.
Country: France / Germany