Film Review: Michael Kohlhass

Michael Kohlhass (2013)

dir: Arnaud de Pallières

cast: Mads Mikkelsen, Bruno Ganz, Denis Lavant, Sergei Lopez, Delphine Chuillot, Mélusine Mayance

Mads Mikkelsen and Mélusine Mayance in Arnaud des Pallières' Michael Kohlhass
Mads Mikkelsen and Mélusine Mayance in Arnaud des Pallières’ Michael Kohlhass

Through a series of commanding and astonishingly accomplished performances, Mads Mikkelsen has established himself on the international film stage as an actor éclat. His recent stand-out performance in Denmark’s Academy Award nomination Jagten earned Mikkelsen the coveted award of Best Actor at Cannes in 2012. As the lead in Michael Kohlhass, Mikkelsen excels once again as a respected horse trader who, after being wronged by the local Baron and ignored by the corrupt feudal laws of 16th century France, decides to take justice into his own hands. Set in the wild, dramatic landscapes of the Cévennes mountains, the film is based on the novella by German Romantic Heinrich von Kleist, whose work The Marquis of O has previously been adapted for the screen by legendary French director Eric Rohmer.

Director Arnaud de Pallières expertly negotiates between the film’s two main themes. Firstly, the film can be seen as a comment on the importance of justice and every human’s right to be treated with respect and dignity no matter the period of time in history. Secondly, the director explores the graphic and natural human condition of revenge. Kohlhass’ idyllic life in the hills breeding horses for local nobles is shattered when a newly appointed young Baron with sadistic tendencies butchers two prize black colts that Kohlhass leaves with him temporarily in exchange for tolling rights. When Kohlhass demands his horses back in prime condition, the Baron ignores him. Kohlhass attempts to sue the Baron but his case is thrown out by the court after the Baron exerts his hereditary influence. When Kohlhass’ wife offers to take his case before the Princess of the region, the results are both devastating and unforgivable. In retribution, Kohlhass raises an army and demands the Baron be charged for his crimes against him.

Gloomily atmospheric cinematography from Jeanne Lapoirie evokes lingering, breathtaking scenes rarely seen in modern period-set filmmaking. The authenticity of the time and era depicted is inimitable – the grime underneath the toenails of Kohlhass’ family from living barefoot on the farm; the live birth of a foal evident from the messy water sac graphically shown as the mare gives birth; and the constant hissing of flies around his wife’s injured body as she lay helpless in their home.  Supported by a phenomenal score from English composer Martin Wheeler, with help from French musical ensemble Les Witches, it is clear to see why Michael Kohlhass was nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes last year. Strangely enough, since then there has been very little buzz about the film across the globe. It is true that this genre, and subsequent style of filmmaking, is not for everyone. There was a time when the historical epic was Hollywood’s golden ticket. However, the rise of the “superhero movie” and the escalating costs of location shooting have made such efforts few and far between. Michael Kohlhass will most likely slip under the radar, which is a shame as it is a wonderfully complete film.

Though the lead performance from Mikkelsen is outstanding, there is much to admire about the extremely talented supporting cast. European cinema stalwarts Bruno Ganz (Downfall, The Last Days of Chez Nous) and Denis Lavant (Holy Motors, Tuvalu) give commanding performances as the conflicted governor of the region and reflective theologist respectively. Catalan favourite Sergei Lopez gives an amiable performance as an arm-less wanderer hoping to join Kohlhass’ band of rebels, and rising young French star of Sarah’s Key Mélusine Mayance adds to her growing reputation as Kohlhass’ daughter Lisbeth. But special mention must be made for Roxane Duran who plays the confident Princess Marguerite of Anglouême with exasperating style and panache. Since her breakthrough role in Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon, I have been eager to see her on the big screen once again, and she proves she has an exciting future ahead of her.

I fondly remember most of my teenage Sunday afternoon’s being taken up watching long, historic epics in front of a warm fire. Michael Kohlhass is exactly that kind of movie. That’s maybe why the cinema I saw the film in was very sparsely populated so I could stretch out happily. Its tremendous scope, aesthetic pleasures and grim, foreboding storyline certainly warm the cockles of avid historical fiction fans. I sit firmly in that category so the film really resonates with me. They should make more films like this, they used to but not anymore. But then again, maybe it is only me who feels this way?

Ben Haller, 2014

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