Age of Uprising: The Legend of Michael Kohlhaas (2013)
Editor’s Notes: Age of Uprising: The Legend of Michael Kohlhaas is now out in limited release.
It’s fitting, for the time it lasts at least, that the sole title card gracing the screen at the start of Age of Uprising: The Legend of Michael Kohlhaas reads Mads Mikkelsen. Here is a film of land disputes and legal tedium, of valuing honour and integrity, made meaningfully intense by the furrowed brow of its leading man. After a time, other names will also appear onscreen—each every bit as worthy—but their trailing appearance is as a forewarning from director Arnaud des Pallières that we’ve entered the Mads Mikkelsen show. And who could complain? Even when its plot is as unwieldy as its title, this is a movie borne on the presence of an actor who elevates his material as a matter of course.
Even when its plot is as unwieldy as its title, this is a movie borne on the presence of an actor who elevates his material as a matter of course.
He arrives over the hilly horizon like the western heroes of yore, the score drumming dread in his wake, as though heralding his approach and fearing it too. It ought to: co-opting the lore of the German folk hero, des Pallières has birthed the hero in a Westeros-like world, albeit with little of the excess of violence to be found there and an abundance of the fight for survival. It is a marvellously-realised medieval world he gives us in collaboration with the master cinematographer Jeanne Lapoirie, who shoots the unforgiving landscapes with the same stark sense of bleak brooding as she does the crags of Mikkelsen’s visage. Fitting, for a film with man and land so linked.
Lapoirie doesn’t so much lend visual gravitas to the plot as simply shoot in spite of it: des Pallières and co-writer Christelle Berthevas have contrived a narrative for their Kohlhaas that derives drama from those who bring it to life, so little of its own does it have to offer. The horse dealer’s dispute with a local land baron over the poor care taken of steeds left as a deposit is not the most stirringly cinematic of subjects; were it not for the ever-reliable intensity of Mikkelsen and the sheer finesse of the filmmaking, it’s easy to imagine an alternate version of trite tedium, especially in the rare, fleeting flirtations des Pallières makes with veering thereto.
He’s a better director than that, though, and Age of Uprising is nothing if not a filmmaker playing to his strengths as a visual storyteller. To the earnest if flaccid efforts to inveigle religion with quotations from Corinthians—and a glorified cameo from the, of course, excellent Denis Lavant—des Pallières has to offer an equestrian motif that’s a nice, though never quite necessary, accompaniment to the evolution of his characters. The growth finds ample attestation too via the symmetry of shots—in relation to each other rather than within themselves—where the unchanged sharply highlights the irreversibly amended. For better or for worse, the movie constantly gives the sense, there is no going back from this.
There is the sense that the movie might not work without him, for all the consummate craft that surrounds him…
The real weight of that atmosphere, of course, rests on the shoulders of Mikkelsen, who’s as well-equipped as any to carry the burden. His is a face with the rugged complexion to evidence a hardened man, yet the soulful eyes to suggest sensitivity; the impenetrable scowl of a soul with nothing to lose, and the piercing stare of a warrior fighting for it all. There is the sense that the movie might not work without him, for all the consummate craft that surrounds him, and the keen cinematic eye that renders his face so resolute in the dying light of a fire. He has that effect. We may enjoy The Legend of Michael Kohlhaas, but let’s not pretend we’re not really living the legend of Mads Mikkelsen.
We may enjoy The Legend of Michael Kohlhaas, but let’s not pretend we’re not really living the legend of Mads Mikkelsen.