In the past ten years, Quentin Tarantino has cornered the market in revenge thrillers. Kill Bill, Inglourious Basterds, and Django Unchained are all blood-soaked spectacles that lionize those seeking vengeance. A pregnant assassin left for dead at her wedding seeks out her former compatriots to regain her child. A team of Jewish soldiers seeks to take down the Nazi leadership and swiftly end WWII. A freed slave in the American south journeys to rescue his wife from a plantation owner presiding over a Mandingo-fighting empire. These films offer a skewed perspective of vengeance, one that creates a moral imbalance where, despite increasingly fraught historical settings, the only choice is to side with the protagonists and cheer on the surge of bloody killings, exaggerated for maximum shock value.
Age Of Uprising: The Legend Of Michael Kohlhaas is the antithesis of that revenge legacy. It is a story about vengeance, yes, but a starkly moralistic depiction of how that obsession doesn’t necessarily lead to cathartic victory, but often to destructive sacrifice and even more pain. It’s pastoral and contemplative, spelling out little of the original novella, and taking great pains to show that personal revenge can spin into a costly endeavor that consumes more than just the individuals in conflict. Anyone going into this film expecting a medieval French revenge epic with requisite amplified action scenes will be sorely disappointed. But it’s far more nuanced that the typical rip-roaring thrill-ride to vengeance, so much so that it draws into question whether the bombast of something like Tarantino’s approach is the best way to examine this type of story, or simply the most eye-catching.
Based on 1808 novella by German author Heinrich von Kleist (which in turn adapts the 16th-century story of Hans Kohlhase), Michael Kohlhaas recounts the story of a horse trader (Mads Mikkelsen, showing off his polyglot abilities) who is stopped on his way to market by the associates of a new lord. Instead of a typical friendly crossing, he’s charged a bridge toll and told he doesn’t have proper travel papers, which forces him to leave a servant and two healthy horses behind. After conducting business in Saxony with a Governor (Bruno Ganz), Kohlhass discovers that a new law renders leaving the horses as collateral unnecessary, but when he returns to demand his horses, they’ve been worked to exhaustion and his servant has been beaten.
Kohlhaas, a highly successful trader based on the quality of his horses, sees this blatant mistreatment of the animals as an insult to his work and a sign of the lord’s corruption. But when Kohlhaas seeks the help of a lawyer to obtain reparations, the lord’s connections in the primitive justice system throw out the case without so much as a second thought. The lawyer tells him to drop the case — pressured by the lord’s powerful friends — but Kohlhaas won’t relent. His persistence causes his wife (Delphine Chuillot) to get involved — and once she’s also mistreated, Kohlhaas draws together a small group for a personal rebellion.
The initial retribution scene is the hinge upon which Age Of Uprising swings to complicate Kohlhaas’s situation. This film depicts many different brutalities upon innocent people who have the misfortune of ending up as collateral damage, which hampers our ability to root for Kohlhaas even when he has righteous anger. That comes to a head after his rebellion attracts others fed up with corrupt low-level nobility in the region, turning his personal vendetta for justice into a social and political threat. As the movement grows, Kohlhaas continues to state that all he wants is reparations for his two horses, but the others glob onto the military success as a way of taking back power from the nobles and seizing property in a mob. That earns judgement from a religious figure (Denis Lavant), credited as “The Theologist,” though it’s heavily implied he’s Martin Luther, who is a character in the original novella. Kohlhaas references a German Bible earlier in the film, and his conversation with The Theologist is the moral thesis of the film. Moments like that, full of moral consternation, elucidate why Franz Kafka was such a devoted fan of von Kleist’s novella.
Age of Uprising takes every opportunity to temper any thoughts that its protagonist is some kind of populist hero. Mikkelsen’s stoic, understated performance underlines how sternly principled the horse trader acts in his life. The film’s final shot, a long take close-up of Mikkelsen’s face, is heartbreaking and masterful. The Hannibal star has been on a tear recently, operating on a Javier Bardem-like level — which makes sense, given the two created some of the most memorable modern Bond villains.
This is not to say that Age Of Uprising presents the ultimate moral examination of vengeance. For one, it plods along during its first hour, gorgeous but aimless before Kohlhaas and others gather up arms for combat. But for an unexpected 2013 Palme d’Or contender, this is a welcome reminder that not every story of vengeance should create an insurmountable imbalance that causes audiences to cheer for the wronged party to keep the blood flowing.