Adapted from the influential 16th century German novella but set now in France, the film chronicles the escalating methods taken by an honorable horse merchant (Mikkelsen) to seek recompense for a cruel baron's horse thievery. Faced with corruption, Kohlhaas stirs the peasants to embark with him on a campaign of bloody retribution with lasting consequences for his family, livelihood and belief in the rule of law.
It's a strong story of lonely, even futile righteousness, which makes the plodding execution by director Arnaud des Pallierès somewhat mystifying. A sense of indirect engagement with the material hovers over the proceedings, save a piercing moral debate about duty between Kohlhaas and a pastor (Denis Lavant) and cinematography paired with sound — increasingly bleak countrysides smacked by brutal winds — that more than suggests existential struggle.
The real disappointment, though, is how checked-out Mikkelsen seems, content to rest on his naturally brooding, matinee stoicism when the movie could have used a jolting central performance of the kind Max von Sydow regularly provided for Ingmar Bergman.
"Age of Uprising: The Legend of Michael Kohlhaas"
MPAA rating: None.
Running time: 2 hours, 2 minutes.
Playing: Laemmle's Music Hall 3, Beverly Hills.