2013 // France / Germany // Arnaud des Pallières // November 21, 2013 // Digital Theatrical Projection (Landmark Plaza Frontenac Cinema)
Director Arnaud des Pallières’ bold, spellbinding new feature, Michael Kohlhaas, announces its strange sensibility in its first scene. In a long shot, a small team of horses trots along a rocky, windswept ridge beneath a strip of gloomy, overcast sky. The light is dim and gray-brown, and the animals are observed from a low angle, as though the viewer were at the foot of a steep hill. The men guiding the beasts press on against the whistling gale, laboring to keep their team moving forward. The forbidding and enormously potent mood conjured by this early scene persists throughout Pallières’ film. It is a bleak but complex aura, encompassing strands of cruelty, futility, exposure, and remoteness. It seems as though one is watching the film’s events from a distance, through the eyes of a primeval, cold-hearted deity. The effect is astonishingly powerful and unsettling.
Adapted from Heinrich von Kleist’s 19th-century novella of the same name—which was in turn inspired by historical events—Pallières’ film relates the tragic account of Michael Kohlhass (Mads Mikkelsen), an upright but strong-willed horse dealer in 16th-century France. (The book was previously adapted in 1969 by Volker Schlöndorff, who retained the source material’s German setting.) Kolhaas is taking his stock to market one day when he is stopped by agents of the local Baron (Swann Arlaud). Using a paperwork discrepancy as a pretext, the Baron’s men seize two of Kohlhaas’ finest animals as collateral. When the horses are later returned to Kohlhaas, they have been worked and abused almost to the point of death—and his protesting servant has been mangled by the Baron’s dogs for good measure.
The arbitrary viciousness of the Baron’s actions provokes Kohlhaas’ distinctly middle class sense of outrage. Unfortunately, the Baron’s political connections stymie Kohlhaas’ efforts to obtain a legal remedy for his grievances, which prompts his wife Judith (Delphine Chuillot) to travel to the court of the Princess (Roxane Duran) and plead her husband’s case. The Baron’s response to this move is dire and bloody, but rather than terrorizing Kohlhaas into silence, it only ignites the man’s righteous fury. Gathering together a small band of lowborn allies, he launches a pitiless guerrilla assault on the Baron’s keep. From there, Kohlhaas’ vengeance evolves into an uprising against the landed nobility, threatening the stability of the whole region.
The bare bones of Michael Kohlhaas' story—violent personal revenge mutates into a full-blown military campaign—have been featured in other films, but rarely, if ever, in such an unconventional manner. Pallières’ style is grim and unhurried, full of carefully chosen words and long pauses. The film watches as characters think, ruminating on their choices and their fates. It eschews music and fills the air with oppressive, unremitting sounds: shrieking winds, tolling bells, buzzing flies. It gazes out on the harsh Massif landscape of crags, valleys, and forests with a kind of Old Testament callousness. A glib description of the film might be “Braveheart as directed by Béla Tarr,” but Pallières has no taste for either Gibson’s testosterone-fueled action or Tarr’s figurative surrealism. Michael Kohlhaas is a remorselessly realistic and unromantic vision of the past: chilly, filthy, and brutal.
Pallières’ treatment of violence is emblematic of the film’s attitude. There are two major “action” scenes in Michael Kohlhaas, and neither is approached in an orthodox manner. Kohlhaas’ attack on the Baron’s stronghold is staged as a stealth thriller sequence, with crossbow-wielding partisans inching silently from one shadowy chamber and stairwell to the next, slaying anyone who resists their advance. In a later battle scene that pits Kohlhaas’ small mounted forces against those of a nobleman, the film regards the bloodshed from atop a nearby hill. In the distance, the combatants clash in near silence, with Kohlhaas’ fighters routing the enemy after a minute or two. These atypical depictions of warfare don’t exactly deglorify the violence on display—the first sequence in particular is still tense and gripping—but they do reveal that Michael Kohlhaas cannot properly be described as a War Movie, at least in the sense in which the label is traditionally used.
The film’s most pivotal moments occur not on the battlefield, but in urgent one-to-one conversations, usually where a character attempts to dissuade another from a particular course of action. It’s no accident that most of the film’s characters are identified only by generic, one word descriptors. A sympathetic Preacher (David Kross) serves as Kohlhaas’s conscience, the Governor (Bruno Ganz) as the voice of conservatism, and the Theologist (Denis Lavant) as an advocate for pacifism. Kohlhaas’ discussions with these characters tackle weighty matters, such as the morality of vengeance and the legitimacy of violent resistance. The talent of the performers and the strength of the screenplay by the director and Christelle Berthevas are such that these exchanges never feel stilted or didactic. The viewer is invited, through Kohlhaas’ experiences, to regard such issues with the soberness they deserve.
This is not to say that Michael Kohlhass is merely an arid thesis paper wrapped in 16th-century vermin and offal (although it is that to an extent). The ponderous but ruthless advancement of the story is essential to the film’s palpable air of doom. Much of that story is conveyed through protracted, exacting observation of characters: the small intimacies between a husband and wife, the restrained ritual of political negotiations, or the dread-choked formalities of a state execution. Elsewhere, Pallières illustrates events through moody, often wordless montage sequences. Kohlhaas’ merciless attack on a convent takes this form: nuns hasten through austere hallways, arrows are set aflame, an abbess prostrates herself, and the convent burns in the twilight. Through such means, the director evokes a sense of implacable cosmic retribution. God does not care whether a person is charitable, honorable, or humble: eventually, they will pay for their sins. The sole mote of light in Pallières’ film is Kohlhaas’ kind-hearted adolescent daughter Lisbeth (Mélusine Mayance), who the rebel rather amazingly succeeds in protecting from his enemies. In all likelihood, the malevolence of the world will someday stain even her virtue. However, the viewer—like Kohlhaas—does not know her fate after the curtain falls, and in uncertainty there is always a shimmer of hope.