MOVIE: Age of Uprising: The Legend of Michael Kohlhaas (2013)

uprisingBased on an 1810 German novel that was based on a folk tale that was based on a true story, this uninspiring 2013 French film is essentially a cross between Braveheart and Monty Python and the Holy Grail (sans wit and killer rabbit).  It is not a good combination.

As the movie opens, Michael Kohlhaas (Mads Mikkelsen), a successful horse merchant, is on his way to town with a pack of animals to sell when he’s stopped on a bridge by the local baron and his posse. 

Because he lacks the permit he didn’t know he needed, the baron has his men confiscate two of his horses.  When Kohlhaas returns home three days later, he finds the horses worked nearly to the bone and his servant Cesar eaten nearly to the bone by a pack of dogs unleashed upon him, the authorities say, when he tried to steal the horses back.

Enraged by this combination of events, Kohlhaas sues the baron for reparations, and loses his case three times in court due to the baron’s influence over the judge.  His wife, in a last ditch attempt to smooth things over, goes to the princess’s castle to plead her husband’s case — and returns dead, murdered by the baron’s lackeys (we think — we never really find out who killed her, but it doesn’t seem like the princess had anything to do with it).

In response, Kohlhaas sells his estate, sends his young daughter away for safety, and then launches a full-on rebellion, with many brutal, bloody losses on both sides. He takes obvious pride in his own morality, even hanging one of his own men after the man is caught looting a house after a battle (inspiring leadership at its best).  When he’s finally promised a fair trial by the princess, in exchange for ceasing and desisting, he disbands his army and returns home to his young daughter, only to find himself on the run (with the little girl) a few months later when one of his former soldiers kills another nobleman, forcing the princess to rescind her amnesty agreement.

Kohlhaas and his daughter are hunted down, and in an ironic conclusion, he ends up getting everything he wanted (reparation money, his horses back, the baron imprisoned) — plus his head chopped off.

Well, THAT worked out well.  (And sorry if the big reveal there bugs anyone, but since this based on a novel from 1810, I feel like the statute of spoilertations has passed.)

Though the film is beautifully made, there’s just nothing all that interesting about it, and while it was clear we were supposed to be inspired by Kohlhaas’s dedication to justice, it was hard to be too impressed, frankly.  There’s one character, clearly a stand-in for Martin Luther, who calls Kohlhaas out on the very things I’d been calling him out on in my head the entire film — a nice attempt to throw in a little balance, but it does nothing to change Kohlhaas’s mind.  Kohlhaas is, the pastor argues, a successful, well-to-do, land-owning merchant has two horses taken from him, loses a case in court, and launches a war fought primarily by lots of impoverished peasants who don’t have a clue about what they’re truly in for (while he sits away from most of the battles at a safe distance, watching the slaughter on both sides).  Where’s the “justice” in all of that?  As far as we can tell from the film, this is the first time Kohlhaas has ever been wronged by the royals in charge — and nobody else appears to have been terribly wronged by them either.  For the insult to his pride and the theft of two horses, he gets his wife killed, gets lots of other people killed, and leaves his daughter with no parents in a harsh world where she probably could’ve used ’em.

Though there’s obvious merit in trying to quash a corrupt aristocracy, of course, the baron is the only royal in the story who appears to be corrupt (we never quite understand the princess’s role in the wife’s death, but she seems fairly reasonable and helps Kohlhaas more than once — including demanding a “simple” beheading, rather than the usual flaying, boiling alive, or drawing-and-quartering of men with similar sentences. See? So nice, that lady!). The baron is young — a teenager — and it’s hard to imagine there wasn’t a better, smarter way to deal with his youthful insolence.

And, of course, it never sits well when a rich man launches a war staffed by poor men and spends most of it sitting on a horse atop a hill watching it unfold below.  You know, like pretty much every war ever.

Even more problematic for me, though, was Mads “Perma-Poker-Face” Mikkelsen. This is the third or fourth film of his I’ve seen, in addition to the NBC series Hannibal (where he plays the infamous Lector), and with this wealth of experience under my belt, I can now attest to the fact he is an actor with exactly zero range.

In this film, as in most of his other work, essentially all he ever does is glare into the distance, all steely-eyed.  His face never changes.  The cadence of his voice never alters.  The film opens with a few scenes attempting to establish him as being wildly in love with his life, his wife, and his family, but none of that felt at all authentic, because Mikkelsen doesn’t seem capable of any emotion other than grim determination.  His wife is murdered, he watches her die, and his face looks the same as it did when he was taking her dress off the night before.  Blah-blah-bland.

Overall, a major disappointment, and definitely one you can pass on.  Every Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF) experience features at least one dramatic dud for me — it’s the price you pay for taking some risks on things you’ve never heard of.  Here’s hoping this is my one for the year!

[View trailer]

Genre: Drama
Cast: Mads Mikkelsen, Delphine Chuillot, Bruno Ganz, Roxanne Duran

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8 Responses to “MOVIE: Age of Uprising: The Legend of Michael Kohlhaas (2013)”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    (Liz) – I’ve been watching “Hannibal” for two seasons now, and I still can’t understand half of what Mads Mikkelson says. I think he’s pretty good, but that show is the only thing I’ve seen him in, and I think his looks have a lot to do with his success – talk about “the great stone face!”

    A side note – I also got hooked on the Cumberbatch “Sherlock” series. In the last ep., the villain was played by Lars Mikkelson. I looked him up and – yup! – he’s Mads’ brother!

  2. RogerBW Says:

    Ah, I saw a trailer for this a little while back. I guess if Kohlhaas is part of your national legend than this might be more interesting.

    If you start a rebellion in mediæval times it cannot, by definition, end well. Even if you were entirely justified, and you win, you’ve upset the divinely ordained order and the power one level up will have to punish you for it.

  3. Anonymous Says:

    I agree about your assessment of this movie but not of Mads’ acting. He’s a subtle actor that you have to watch closely. He’s the master of microexpressions, which are easily missed if you’re not paying attention. Have you seen The Hunt? His performance in that movie is fantastic.

    • megwood Says:

      I haven’t seen The Hunt but will check it out. I haven’t been that impressed by his work in the other things I’ve seen. He’s been marginally more interesting in Hannibal, but I think that’s more the character than him for me. Definitely not an issue with my failing to pay attention, believe me! Just a subjective thing.

      • Anonymous Says:

        Did you see the “Hannibal” S2 finale? I thought his performance in the last 10 minutes was great.

        The problem may be that in all of his American work, he’s played emotionless baddies. In his Danish stuff, he’s played normal people with normal emotions.

        • megwood Says:

          That’s a really good point (about his American roles). I’ve seen two of his non-American films (Flame and Citron and one I think was called Exit), and liked him better in both of those than in things like Quantum of Solace, though still wasn’t totally blown away.

          As for Hannibal, I got so bored by about episode 4 of season two I quit watching, but they’re all piled up on my DVR so I’ll probably get around to finishing up at some point!

          • Anonymous Says:

            I’ve seen all of his movies on Netflix streaming, and my least favorite was Flame and Citron. The Hunt and A Royal Affair were my favorites. Also, Adam’s Apples was really funny but really dark; I laughed out loud a lot but felt bad for laughing if that makes sense.

            S2 picks up after episode 4. It kind of goes off-the-rails crazy but in a good way, I think. The finale is great, if by great I mean emotionally devastating.

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