Itself loosely based on a true story, the 19th century novella by Heinrich von Kleist, “Michael Kohlhaas,” has been adapted several times for screen, notably by Volker Schlöndorff in 1969, even spawning “The Jack Bull,” a pretty good HBO restaging starring Johns Cusack and Goodman, in 1999. But with Schlöndorff himself telling us in an interview that he considered his version his “biggest failure” it would have seemed that there was still room for the definitive, high-profile, straight-up adaptation. And on paper, that’s what Arnaud de Pallières’ Cannes competition entrant “Michael Kohlhaas” was meant to be — just check out its impeccable line-up of European stars-with-major-arthouse-appeal: Mads Mikkelsen (last year’s Cannes Best Actor for “The Hunt”), Bruno Ganz (whose sclerotic Hitler in “Downfall” spawned its own remarkably resilient meme) and Denis Lavant (coming off his chameleonic performance in the critically worshipped “Holy Motors”). But stacked with a ridiculously watchable cast, and encased in rich, atmospheric landscape photography, the great mystery is how “Michael Kohlhaas,” like an errant carthorse, manages to slip the tethers of our attention and interest and go plodding off into the hills, never to return: it’s handsome, stately and deathly dull.
The spartan but should-be-resonant plot of the film, concerns the titular Kohlhaas (Mikkelsen, here mostly speaking French), a successful horse trader who is forced to leave two of his horses as security in the care of the cruel Baron whose lands he is crossing. When he returns to pick them up, he discovers the horses in near-death condition and the servant he left with them has been mauled by a pack of attack dogs. Kohlhaas goes to the courts to seek compensation for his servant’s injuries and the restoration of the horses to health, but his petition is repeatedly turned down due to the influence the Baron holds. But when his wife is killed attempting to press his case at the court of the Princess, Kohlhaas’ simmering moral outrage boils over and he takes up arms, soon attracting a small rebel army to his cause. And when the turmoil he foments threatens the stability of the state, he finds that the justice he sought may have a higher price than he imagined.
Broadly speaking, it’s a parable about fairness and honor, and the whether a noble end (the pursuit of justice) can ever justify violent or criminal means. It’s a premise that should be ripe with contemporary relevance, but somehow the story is told in such a labored, uninvolving fashion, that it’s all you can do to stay abreast of what’s going on onscreen, much less appreciate any potential insights into the modern-day terrorism/freedom fighting debate. And the pacing is not just off, but also really odd, so that we’ve never really any idea how much time has passed between one thing and another. In a world where the unchanging nature of the landscape and costuming give us few cues as to temporality (Monday’s sackcloth tunic looks much the same as Thursday’s it would seem), there were times when we were brought up short realising that no, it’s not just a few hours that have elapsed since the last scene, it’s months.
It’s a great pity because Mikkelsen’s inherent singleminded intelligence is kind of perfect for this role, and as a noble man who will not compromise even a shred of principle, his arc is a tragedy of noble intentions that builds to what should be a shatteringly ironic climax. But despite the film’s many lingering shots of him, hair whipping in the wind on top of some hill, cheekbonily contemplating What Must Be Done, we get no real sense of interiority, or of the oceanic feeling that we suppose his stoic, heroic visage is meant to convey. And with Mikkelsen, one of our very favorite working actors, unable to forge much of a connection through the mire despite having the lead role and the vast majority of the screen time, it’s hardly surprising that Ganz and Lavant don’t fare any better in much smaller parts. In both cases, their moments onscreen playing off Mikkelsen give the occasional flash of what might have been, as does the film’s best scene between Kolhaas and the Princess, but can’t overcome the dour and rather pedagogical dullness of the overriding tone.
There is perhaps something noble in the effort to capture the book’s apparently spare, existential tone, over and above the kind of “Braveheart”-y broad epic strokes that the story could lend itself to. But, shorn of some interesting subplots and themes (especially in regards to religion — Lavant’s anonymous clergyman is Martin Luther himself in the book) that get lost in the translation of events from Germany to France, as the film progresses the anti-dramatic choices it makes start to feel less like restraint and more like lack of inspiration. In fact, this is one case in which a bit more broadsword-rattling and stirring speechifying would have been hugely welcome. As it is, our own sense of seething injustice is only really awoken when we consider how wastefully “Michael Kohlhaas” uses its strong story, great cast and properly damp, moodily medieval photography. [C-]