Wednesday, December 4, 2013

French Film Festival 2013 - Michael Kohlhaas

Last weekend I watched "Michael Kohlhaas", which is based on an 1811 novella written by German author Heinrich von Kleist about a true event that had taken place in 16th century Germany.

The story is about a horse dealer Michael Kohlhaas who, while passing a border, had two of his newly purchased horses unjustly taken from him as a road toll by an overbearing lord, at a time when road tolls had already been banned by law. Those two horses were worked mercilessly till they bled, and one of his loyal servants was also beaten up badly by the lord's men. When his attempts to seek justice through court proceedings repeatedly failed, his wife decided to take his case to the reigning princess but she was brutally murdered in the process at the behest of the powerful lord. Driven to blinding rage, Kohlhaas formed an army out of his servants, was forced to take his young daughter along for the ride, and attacked the castle of the lord, killing many of his men. The lord's escape into a convent did not stop him. He incited peasants to rise up in rebellion against the aristocracy. His action enraged the princess, who at first seemed forgiving and generous towards him, but who subsequently ordered his arrest and execution by beheading. To show him magnanimity, the princess ordered the judge to award him, before his execution, the justice that he had been seeking, that is, to return two healthy horses to him, to grant him compensation for bodily injuries that his servant had suffered and compensation for his own loss, and to sentence the culpable lord to two-year imprisonment.

Although the story is somewhat straightforward, the film is still quite enthralling with the gripping atmosphere created by skillful cinematography of the vast windswept and barren wilderness, accompanied by a somber sound design (with flies buzzing, wind howling and horse hoof thumping) that highlights the unforgiving countryside, plus the dark charm of the wronged hero role played by Mads Mikkelsen.

In the midst of Kohlhaas' acts of vengeance, there is a short dialogue between an old clergy and him in which the former tried to dissuade the latter from further committing acts of violence on account of faith in God, but failed, as the latter insisted on seeing justice done. The conversation has an unmistakable premonitory ring to it.

Few rational beings would risk their own lives unless they feel totally trapped with no way out. The tragic element of the story is that Kohlhaas' vindictive action resulted in creating even more victims (his own daughter being one as she was becoming an orphan), even if he finally got the justice that he had sought, for which ironically he had to pay with his own life. But then, in those days of the "ancien regime", when the royalties held all legislative, administrative and judiciary powers, what options did an aggrieved commoner have other than rise up and rebel?

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