In the wintry woods of medieval France, a rich merchant is stopped by the thugs of a baron who seize two of his finest horses.
So begins the epic quest for justice of Michael Kohlhaas (Mads Mikkelsen). He first tries to get his horses back using the law. But when this sees his wife murdered and his servant beaten, he takes up arms against a corrupt aristocracy in the early stages of terminal decay.
Though based on real events in the 16th century, the novel Michael Kohlhaas was written in 1811 by Heinrich von Kleist. Kleist used Kohlhaas as a symbol for his own opposition to French rule in Prussia.
This film adaptation by Arnaud des Pallieres follows Kohlhaas and his guerrilla band through sparse, bleak landscapes.
These sequences are lush and atmospheric—though not exactly packed with action.
He rallies ordinary people to his cause. This is not just through his bravery.
It’s through his principles of rule of law and respect for property—even when it becomes clear that legal vindication will cost him his life.
Kleist uses Kohlhaas to represent a time when early capitalists still had revolutions to win.
They had to convince themselves that what was in their interests was in the interests of everybody.
Now those merchants have become a ruling class as brutal as any baron, Kohlhaas’ values seem anything but inspiring.
Michael Kohlhaas was a favourite novel of author Franz Kafka, who said he couldn’t even think of it “without being moved to tears and enthusiasm”.
But while Kafka’s own work mirrored the maze of arbitrary injustice that Kohlhaas had to navigate, by Kafka’s time it was clear that bourgeois values offered no way out.