Transplanting Heinrich von Kleist’s influential novella from Germany to 16th-century France, Age of Uprising: The Legend of Michael Kohlhaas follows the titular horse trader (Mads Mikkelsen) as his rage with a local baron blossoms into a mass peasant revolt. The origins of the dispute are existentially ordinary: Stopped by a few of the baron’s piggish men en route to his home, Kohlhaas is forced to hand over a pair of his prize black mares, so as to cover a toll that’s been arbitrarily imposed. Later, Kohlhaas’s horses are offered back to him, after they’ve been abused and carelessly worked over in the fields, and after his servant has been mauled by the baron’s dogs. Fixated on justice, Kohlhaas tries to plead his case to the local courts, only to be stymied by officials personally connected to the baron. His comely wife (Delphine Chuillot) rides into town to appeal the issue to the Princess (Roxane Duran), though she’s beaten so brutally she barely makes it back to her husband before dying. Kohlhaas concludes that fairness is self-defined and self-achieved.
It’s unfair to accuse a film with 200-year-old source material of familiarity, but it’s hard to watch The Legend of Michael Kohlhaas and not think of, say, every revenge movie in existence, particularly those, like The Outlaw Josey Wales and Braveheart, that follow a tarnished idealist as he wages war on his own government. Obviously aware of this familiarity, and greatly cognizant of the revenge genre’s penchant for hypocritical demagoguery, director Arnaud des Pallières unsettles the audience’s usual feelings of vicarious blood lust. The visual emphases are gratifyingly peculiar: Most of the violence is demurely implied, but occasionally there’s an explicit punctuation, such as a splash of blood on a woman’s forehead, or a deep wound on a torso, that allows you to fill in all the carnage that’s presumably writ large off-screen. Des Pallières accentuates the quotidian of rebellion, such as the hours spent each day riding horses across long expanses of land and the struggles to find shelter as an outlaw. It’s the galloping of the hooves and the gusts of wind blowing through the fields that assert themselves to us, rather than the trails forged by the swords and arrows. A rousing over-scored pre-battle war cry is pointedly nowhere to be found.
But there’s a downside to the director’s often poignant austerity. The story is so vague that it glosses over Kohlhaas’s own atrocities, and it loses von Kleist’s ironic detachment as well as his insistence, which is more vital than ever, on bureaucracy as a self-perpetuating organism, separate from humankind, that’s pitifully useless in governing a human’s actual affairs. This uprising could use some of the rude, propulsive energy that a director like Mel Gibson would almost certainly lend it, as we need to feel the destabilizing force of the anarchy that Kohlhaas is inadvertently proposing under the guise of government accountability. This unruliness, in turn, would intensify the irony that resides in the fact that the rebellion is the only fashion with which to reach a larded royalty that’s too corrupt to acknowledge any gesture but a slap in the figurative face. Fortunately, those ambiguities come through on the leading man’s visage. Apparently incapable of expressing any emotion in an ordinary or unbelievable fashion, Mikkelsen keeps des Pallières’s occasionally contradictory humanist instincts on balance and in focus; he’s a poet of indignant torment.