Anyone unfamiliar with German author Heinrich von Kleist and his 200-year-old novella Michael Kohlhaas will likely spend much of Age Of Uprising—the book’s puckishly misnamed second cinematic translation, and a 2013 Palme d’Or nominee—twitchily anticipating a Braveheart-esque orgy of ass-kicking, bastard-impaling payback.
Set in the 16th century, in what’s now part of Berlin, this austere, forbidding film follows a humble man on a self-immolating quest for satisfaction after a baron illegally confiscates two of his horses, then returns them wounded and broken. Kohlhaas (Danish star Mads Mikkelsen) takes the horse-pilferer to court, but the nobleman uses his influence to get the case dismissed. When Kohlhaas’ wife can’t persuade him to cut his losses and drop the matter, she travels to petition “the princess” to intercede on Kohlhaas’s behalf. A leads to B leads to D or J or maybe P, because quickly, Kohlhaas becomes the head of peasant rebellion against the monarchy, though director Arnaud des Pallières depicts that rebellion with surprising restraint. Viewers hungry for the type of historical revenge flick that used to end with Mel Gibson or Russell Crowe shirtless and bathed in their enemies’ blood—or for an arthouse limb-chopper like Nicholas Winding Refn’s Valhalla Rising, which, like Michael Kohlhaas, is built around a commanding Mikkelsen performance—may feel as frustrated as Kohlhaas does in his pursuit of justice.
Then again, he isn’t seeking justice: He’s looking for order. Kleist’s tale—a favorite of Franz Kafka’s, reportedly—is about Kohlhaas’ outwardly levelheaded, but possibly insane willingness to surrender everything to uphold the principle that everyone should follow the rules.
Mikkelsen is no stranger to high-functioning, hyper-competent madmen: He played Bond villain Le Chiffre in 2006’s Casino Royale, then went to NBC’s Hannibal to follow Brian Cox and Anthony Hopkins in the role of everyone’s favorite human-liver-snacking psychiatrist. With his thin-lipped, narrow-eyed, disquietingly symmetrical face, Mikkelsen is nearly as good a prop as he is an actor. That impassive but selectively expressive mug is what makes Age Of Uprising’s climax shocking and memorable, but not at all in the way viewers will be conditioned to expect.
And getting there demands no small reserve of patience. Though visually lush and rich in rustic detail—a sex scene between Kohlhaas and his wife is no more sentimental or prurient than a later one where Kohlhaas helps a mare give birth—the film is spare to the point of confusion. There’s almost no music, just the pervasive rasp of a brutal wind whipping a landscape as beautiful and unyielding as Mikkelsen’s indelible face. And then there’s the matter of its pace, which can fairly be described. As. Unhurried.
This is certainly intentional. It imparts a sense of life in the 1530s as brief and full of hardship, with little hope that one’s fortunes or station in life might be improved. Midway through, when a priest warns Kohlhaas that only humility and forgiveness can achieve the ends he has chosen to pursue through violence, even the speech seems to last an eternity. (The priest is played by Denis Lavant, memorable from 2012’s mind-bending Holy Motors.) This indolence probably helps the film to lodge more stubbornly in the audience’s memory, even as it makes it a minor chore to sit through.
Again, this may in part be because Pallières is determined to skip the obligatory scenes that so often attend this sort of film. A St. Crispin’s Day-style speech to inspire his small band of true believers? Nope. Instead, Kohlhaas lectures his men to pay for any food or supplies they receive, because even people who offer them as gifts might be doing it out of intimidation. He’s less a Robin Hood figure than the Sgt. Joe Friday of Saxony. His refusal to place himself above the law, even after he learns its ineffectuality firsthand, is what gives the tale its tragic, fable-like resonance.