When the competition lineup for the 2013 Cannes Film Festival was announced, perhaps the biggest surprise was the inclusion of a literary adaptation by a little-known French director, Arnaud Des Pallières. At Cannes, this film, based on an 1810 novella by Heinrich Von Kleist (himself the subject of Jessica Hausner’s Amour Fou, which just premiered at this year’s Cannes), was called simply Michael Kohlhaas, as Kleist’s story had been. Its distributor, Music Box Films, has since retitled it Age Of Uprising: The Legend Of Michael Kohlhaas, which seems like a fairly transparent attempt to appeal to Game Of Thrones fans. While this 16th-century quasi-revenge tale has a superficially similar medieval bleakness, it lacks the juicy, salacious elements—incest! black magic! main characters brutally slaughtered at whim!—that make that show so compulsively watchable. This is a much drier, more reserved affair, though it can be quite powerful on the rare occasions when it allows raw emotion to make its way to the surface.
Credit Mads Mikkelsen for those surges—and for the film’s U.S. release, in all likelihood, as Hannibal has made him somewhat marketable. He brings his usual steely charisma to the role of Kohlhaas, a horse trader who’s suddenly informed, as he heads to market one day, that the local Baron (Swann Arlaud) has imposed new restrictions on travel, including a toll and a passport requirement. Leaving two fine horses behind as collateral while he heads to the city to work this out, he returns weeks later (remember, it’s the 16th century) to find them in terrible shape, mistreated and half-starved. His efforts to secure legal compensation for his loss are summarily dismissed by the thoroughly corrupt judiciary, and when his wife (Delphine Chuillot) attempts to petition a princess, she winds up dead, inspiring Kohlhaas to gather a group of wronged, fed-up allies and engage in full-scale rebellion. Surely, a great deal of bloody hacking and chopping will ensue, with the entrails of Kohlhaas’ enemies spilled all over the verdant landscape.
Nope. Kleist’s novella is not an action saga but a dissertation on the nature of justice, which makes it a tricky subject for dramatic adaptation (though several have tried—Volker Schlöndorff made one version in 1969, and the character of Coalhouse Walker in E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime is named after Kohlhaas). There’s violence here and there, but Kohlhaas isn’t primarily motivated by revenge, even after his wife is killed—he just wants the law to acknowledge that he was wronged, because otherwise life is chaos. At one point, a cleric (played by the great Denis Lavant; in Kleist’s story, this cleric is Martin Luther!) tries to talk Kohlhaas into backing down, suggesting that he let God sort it all out later; their debate is more fiery than any of the film’s few battles, and at such moments the eruption of passionate discourse seems to function like the chorus of a Pixies song, arising from relatively sedate verses. There’s a difference between a three-minute anthem and a two-hour movie, though, and the ratio of intellectual excitement to stolid lethargy in Age Of Uprising isn’t ideal. In Game Of Thrones terms: too much Arya, not enough Hound.