Saturday, June 16, 2018

Book Review - "Michael Kohlhaas" by Heinrich von Kleist (translated by James Kirkup)

In 2013 I saw the film adaptation Michael Kohlhaas at the French Film Festival in Hong Kong and was very impressed with the powerful theme of one man’s obsessive quest for justice and the intensely haunting cinematography and acoustics.

Recently I saw a GR friend’s review of the novella and was lured to read it. Styled in a chronicle format, the novella is written with impassive detachment, which actually adds to the poignancy of the story that is based on a true event in 16th century Germany (the real person was named Hans Kohlhaas).

Michael Kohlhaas is a horse dealer leading a peaceful life on the border between Saxony and Brandenburg. One day when he takes his horses to a fair as usual, passing through territories that belong to a nobleman von Tronka, he is demanded for the first time to pay tolls and to show his pass. When he fails to produce a pass, his two black horses are forcibly detained as collateral. He leaves his servant behind to tend to the horses while he returns home to see about the issuance of a pass. In his absence, the two horses are made to work the fields and reduced to pitiable state, and his servant savagely beaten up. He tries to seek redress in a Saxony court but his charge is dismissed. His wife decides to help him take the petition to the ruler of Saxony, but is brutally wounded by the ruler’s guards and dies a little later.

Blinding rage spurs Kohlhaas to take revenge against von Tronka, which act balloons into insurgence against the state. The aristocrats decide that Kohlhaas must be punished for his outrageous actions, despite the attempt by Martin Luther and the ruler of Brandenburg to save him.

The climax comes at the very end, which involves a piece of secret paper that Kohlhaas holds, that concerns the fate of the ruler of Saxony.

The novella begs the question: what do you do when you find that the written law doesn’t protect your rights and interests?

I found this novella to be a compelling read and am giving it 4 stars, although I would say that the 2013 movie starring Mads Mikkelsen is even better.

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