Heinrich von Kleist’s 1811 novella ‘Michael Kohlhaas’ is one that remains both remarkably readable and remarkably relevant. The story concerns a sixteenth-century merchant resorting to fanatical and violent extremes in his quest to obtain justice after a wealthy noble openly and illegally humiliates him by stealing two of his horses. It’s related in an extraordinarily modern-feeling matter-of-fact style and deals with themes that still preoccupy us today.
Unfortunately, Arnaud de Pallieres’s film succeeds neither as a decent adaptation of the book nor as a rewarding movie in its own right. Transplanting the action from Germany to the Cevennes and almost exclusively using exterior locations was an unwise move, and though Pallieres has spoken of his desire to make a kind of western, the changes simply highlight the way he has stripped down the original narrative. This paring back only serves to make the precise legal and logistical details of Kohlhaas’s mission less comprehensible than in the novella.
The film also feels undernourished in terms of scale; whereas the book involved mass carnage as the vengeful protagonist and his band roamed widely from town to town, the film offers a number of fairly low-profile rural skirmishes. Adding in a daughter and a few other characters doesn’t compensate, dramatically or emotionally, since we’re expected most of the time to seek any depth or nuances in the many close-ups of Mads Mikkelsen’s tanned face. As good as he may have been in other fare, in this instance that is simply asking too much. Dullness prevails, and Kleist’s cruel ironies never really get a look-in.