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In pursuit of justice

09 May 2014

Stephen Brown sees a filmed Kleist novella


THE film Age of Uprising, subtitled The legend of Michael Kohlhaas (Cert. 15), attracted critical admiration when on limited theatrical release earlier this year. Now that it is available on DVD, it deserves a wider audience.

As with many a film before this, Heinrich von Kleist's 1811 novella Michael Kohlhaas (greatly loved by Kafka) is the inspiration. This, in turn, is based on a real-life 16th-century figure, Hans Kohlhase. The Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen (best known to English-language audiences as James Bond's antagonist in Casino Royale) plays Kohlhaas with a demeanour surrounded by gravitas and compassion. When he explains the passage that he has been reading from 1 Corinthians 13 tohis daughter, he says that faith is a way of recognising the world for what it is.

In this version of the book, Kohlhaas is a horse-trader wrongly treated by a brutal and greedy baron. There are unsuccessful attempts to rectify the matter, first through the law, and then by his wife, who is wounded and dies as a result of petitioning the Princess of Angoulême. Kohlhaas takes the law into his own hands, selling his property and forming a posse to regain his stolen horses.

This may all sound familiar stuff to lovers of John Ford and Anthony Mann Westerns, and, indeed, there was a straightforward transfer of Kleist's tale to Wyoming in the 1999 movie The Jack Bull. In the hands of the director Arnaud des Pallières, the mountainous region of Cévennes is substituted for the story's original location in Saxony. The motive appears to be not only to turn it into a French-language film, but also that des Pallières considered the hostile terrain to be a metaphor for a society that has turned away from civilised or, more specifically, Christian values.

After a number of derring-do episodes reminiscent of Robin Hood, the higher principles that initiate Kohlhaas's actions become somewhat tarnished until he encounters a Protestant theologian, played by Denis Lavant. Clearly, if the film had retained its Germanic origins, the minister would have been Martin Luther. As it is, Lavant's role saves the film from being, despite the blurb on the DVD cover, a one-dimensional revenge movie. Instead, we get provocative reflections on God and the nature of human aggression.

An admonished Kohlhaas is reminded by the pastor (who has translated the Bible from which Kohlhaas reads) that Christians should fight with the cross and with compassion. And, while Lavant disappears from the film as swiftly as he entered it, the lasting effect on Kohlhaas is that he chooses to re-engage with the roots of his faith, even though military victory is well within his grasp.

While Age of Uprising is capable of multiple readings - on the rule of law, terrorism, war and peace, etc. - it seems especially suited to a Christian interpretation of sacrifice and love, one when, even as we look through a glass darkly, there is in Mikkelsen's company a real presence of the world as it should be.

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