Tuesday, July 29, 2014

A Slapstick of Cruelty and Despair: On Jacques Tati’s Mon Oncle

Several decades after the advent of the talking picture, France produced two of the last great silent film stars: Jacques Tati and Pierre Etaix.  Now, there’ s a good chance you’ve never heard of Etaix, as his films were unavailable for many years due to legal bullshit, and were only just released in the United States last years by the Criterion Collection.  But Tati is well-known and universally beloved for his most famous character, Monsieur Hulot.  Like Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp before him, Hulot finds himself adrift in a world of cruel people and equally cruel objects that conspire against him (as the protagonist of Yuri Olesha’s Envy succinctly puts it: “Things don’t like me.”)
But the Little Tramp had a certain clumsy elegance to him, whereas M. Hulot is anything but little.  He is big and gawky and always in the way.  He doesn’t fit, both in literal physical terms and in terms of society.  Tati made four films starring M. Hulot—M. Hulot’s Holiday, Mon Oncle, Playtime, and Traffic—and from Mon Oncle onward they set themselves the task of exploring the theme expounded in Chaplin’s Modern Times: man’s battle with technology.  M. Hulot is a Luddite, perhaps even a Poujadist (Poujadism was a brand of reactionary conservatism popular in France in the ‘50’s).  He is also what the Russians would call a “superfluous man.” There is neither room nor need for him in French society.
Now, I have just seen Tati’s Mon Oncle (1958)—on which, fun fact, Pierre Etaix served as assistant director; this was before he made his own feature films— and while it was pleasant enough, I did not enjoy it as much as I’d thought I would.  Part of the problem is that Tati takes his animus against technology too far.  Now, don’t get me wrong, nobody hates technology when it doesn’t work more than I do.  But on the whole I love technology.  I love air conditioning and central heating.  I love my laptop and my internet.  I love my dishwasher and my refrigerator and my washer/dryer.  All of these things make a positive contribution to my quality of life.  I suspect Tati would despise them all.  In Mon Oncle, M. Hulot’s main adversary is the high-tech, futuristic house of his wife and brother-in-law.  The house, which is beautiful and which I would love to live in, is fall of gadgets and has a button for everything.  Hulot can’t handle it (and to a certain extent, neither can his relatives, even though they’re quite proud of it).  But if one got a handle on it, I think it could be convenient and pleasant.

The house.

The second problem with
Mon Oncle is that, while it is ostensibly a comedy, it isn’t particularly funny.  I think this can be attributed in large part to how bleak M. Hulot’s situation is.  He has no place in the world, everyone treats him like shit, he’s gawky and socially inept, his brother-in-law tries to get him jobs and he routinely, immediately fucks them up.  How badly does it hurt him? It’s not clear.  I may be mistaken, but I believe he speaks, at most, a single line in the entire movie.  This is a slapstick film in the great silent tradition of Chaplin and Keaton, and although there is sound—and it is used with great precision—the dialogue isn’t terribly important.  It’s just background noise.  But the brother-in-law and sister, for all their inane blather, are still at least speaking, from which we can gain a certain insight into their character.  But Hulot is opaque; like Buster Keaton, he is stonefaced.

There is, however, one scene of such sublime beauty that it could justify the entire movie.
  It comes early on: Hulot is in his apartment and he sees a caged bird in a window across the street.  He finds that by carefully positioning his opened window, he can reflect light onto the bird, causing it to sing.  We watch him experiment with positions for the window and the realization that he, like Hideyoshi Toyotomi, can make the bird sing, is downright enchanting.  If only the rest of the film offered comparable pleasures.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Bong Joon-ho vs. Harvey Weinstein, Arch-Philistine: On the American Distribution of Snowpiercer

Go Ah-sung and Song Kang-ho, two of the foreigners who appear in Snowpiercer, a foreign movie that
Harvey Weinstein thinks you wouldn't be able to understand.
For years now, Harvey Weinstein has been a major distributor of Asian films in the U.S., which is weird, because he doesn’t seem to particularly like them.  He procured the distribution rights to: Chen Kaige’s Farewell, My Concubine (1993), Wisit Sasanatieng’s Tears of the Black Tiger (2000), Peter Chan Ho-Sun’s Dragon (2011), and Wong Kar-Wai’s The Grandmaster (2013), and he had them all abridged, because he thought Americans were either too stupid or too impatient to see them at their full length.  The result was that they often became choppy and less coherent, which paradoxically made them less entertaining and therefore more likely to feel overly long.
Imagine then the horror experienced by myself and my fellow cinephiles when we heard that Weinstein had acquired the American distribution rights for Bong Joon-ho’s English-language debut, Snowpiercer.  The film is 127 minutes long and, sure enough, Weinstein wanted to (a) abridge it by about twenty minutes and (b) add a prologue and epilogue so that it would make more sense for idiotic American audiences.  Now, as it’s been pointed out elsewhere (I don’t recall by whom, forgive me), Snowpiercer is about the most linear narrative ever filmed.  It is about a post-apocalyptic world where all of humanity lives on board a high-tech train, the poor people in the back and the rich people up front.  It depicts a revolt of the plebs as they attempt to fight their way to the front of the train.  It does not get much more linear than that. 
But somewhere along the way, Weinstein must have thought the average American would get bored or confused (it didn’t help that a good twenty percent of the dialogue is in Korean, which would mean—quel horreur!—that Americans would have to read subtitles).  And so Weinstein decided to butcher the film.  Bong Joon-ho—director of such modern masterpieces as The Host and Mother—was understandably enraged.  When Snowpiercer was shown to international audiences at the Pusan International Film Festival, Bong said of Americans (and Britons and Australians, who would also be forced to watch the Weinsteinized version upon its eventual release) that this was their last chance to see the movie as he had intended it to be shown.  Something of a feud developed between Bong and Weinstein, and although I don’t pretend to understand the legal questions at issue here, Bong refused to edit his film in line with Weinstein’s wishes, which significantly delayed its release in the U.S. When it finally came out here (just last month), it initially had a significantly limited theatrical release. 
Now, I can’t pretend to know what’s going on in Weinstein’s head, but it certainly looks like he set out to deliberately sabotage the movie; it would seem that he was hoping for it to fail at the box office, and then he would be able to justify his demands for Bong to abridge it.  Luckily, fans and critics (those who got to see it, anyway) quite liked Bong’s original version of the film and Weinstein, likely understanding that there was money to be made, relented and allowed the movie a wider release. (It also appeared “on-demand” on Amazon, which is where I watched it).  So Bong won out in the end, although I suspect the movie could have been much more successful at the box office if it had received the wide release and enthusiastic promotional campaign that an American movie with a similar premise (and budget) would have gotten.  It’s worth noting that Snowpiercer has been wildly successful in Korea, where it has become one of the most financially successful Korean movies ever made (and this despite its being made mostly in a foreign language; the Koreans evidently don’t have a problem with subtitles). 

So, are there lessons to be learned from this whole episode? Well, first, and this one is pretty basic:
don’t sell your fucking movie to Harvey Weinstein.  He’s a philistine and he doesn’t respect Asian cinema.  He has a consistent track record of butchering it left and right.  And second, and more generally: don’t assume that your audience is stupid.  Foreign films don’t make a lot of money in the U.S. because they don’t get promoted or widely released.  And then the distributors can say, “See, it didn’t make money, we were right not to promote it.” It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.  If you were to take wildly entertaining Korean movies, like The Host or Oldboy or The Good, the Bad, the Weird, and promote them like you did their American counterparts, I think you could make plenty of money and the American movie landscape would be richer for it.  It’s been done before.  Chinese-language movies like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) and Hero (2004) were number one at the box office.  There’s no reason why other foreign-language movies can’t be comparably successful.  We just need people other than Harvey Weinstein calling the shots.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The Montessori Schools of Zeta Reticuli: On Konstantin Lopushansky’s The Ugly Swans

*Contains one potential spoiler about the end of Tarkovsky's Stalker*

Here at Say a Prayer for the Octopus, I generally like to focus the discussion on films that I liked, because I find that I have more to say about them.  But today I think it would be edifying to discuss a movie that deeply disappointed me, namely Konstantin Lopushansky’s The Ugly Swans (2006).  Everything I read about this film before I watched it made it sound incredibly promising.  It is an adaptation of a story by the Strugatsky brothers, whose novel Roadside Picnic served as the basis for Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979), one of the greatest films ever made and one of my personal favorites.  Lopushansky knew Tarkovsky and was actually an assistant director on Stalker.  Finally, the premise of the film—which we will discuss presently—is strongly reminiscent of the Tarkovsky movie.  So basically, I came into this expecting Stalker II: The Stalkening.  Alas, it plays out more as bad Tarkovsky pastiche.
The premise—never fully elaborated—is something like this.  A writer in the near future is hired by a UN commission to visit the Russian town of Tashlinsk, where strange phenomena have been taking place.  Tashlinsk has been taken over by shadowy figure known as Aquatters, who may be humans disfigured and transformed by an as-of-yet unknown disease, or maybe just aliens.  The Aquatters have set up a school for genius human children, whom they instruct in eschatology and levitation (so it’s part apocalyptic Hogwarts, part Transcendental Meditation center).  The writer is tasked with finding out what the Aquatters’ intentions are vis-à-vis the rest of humanity while he simultaneously ties to rescue his daughter from the school.  How she ended up there is not clear, there’s some vague and unsatisfactory business with his ex-wife.
Also, ever since the arrival of the Aquatters, Tashlinsk is plagued by relentless rain.  And in this respect, along with a persistent sepia color scheme, The Ugly Swans bears a much stronger resemblance to Lars von Trier’s first film, The Element of Crime (1984), than it does to Stalker.  But that’s a stylistic consideration.  In terms of content, doesn’t this sound like Stalker? A mysterious “zone,” a potentially extraterrestrial presence, and, on top of everything else, there are miracles allegedly taking place in Tashlinsk.  Now, the only miracle in Stalker comes at the end, when Stalker’s daughter is seen to telekinetically movie a glass across a table.  It’s very subtle and it’s more effective for it.  By contrast, in The Ugly Swans, we see cross-legged children shooting off the ground and hovering in mid-air.  This is emblematic of the principle flaw in Lopushansky’s movie: whereas Tarkovsky—and all of the best artists who deal with the mysterious and the weird—works by implication (show, don’t tell), Lopushansky shows everything.  Everything—from the “miracles” to the aliens themselves—looks surprisingly mundane and cheap.  In places, the film even looks like one of those shitty movies that the SciFi channel (sorry, “Syfy”) churns out on a weekly basis.

Some orange rain.
There are moments in the film that elevate the proceedings above the mundane and disappointing.  It’s very hard to go wrong with rain and sepia.  And the mysteries at the heart of the film, even though they’re dealt with clumsily, are still intriguing.  As regards the central question of what the Aquatters are doing with the children, there is a haunting episode where a doctor says of a child whom they’re trying to reintegrate into normal human society: “Our world is endless suffering to them.” The Aquatters have hypersensitized them just as they’ve refined them, such that the traumas of everyday life are unendurable to them.  There is something of all of us in them.  Stripped of our defenses, would we not find ourselves in a similar predicament?

God, this movie could have been great, in the hands of a Tarkovsky or even a von Trier.  As it is, we are left to grasp at the fleeting moments where we find traces of the profound and haunting movie that this could have been.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Dr. Mifune Will See You Now: Akira Kurosawa’s Red Beard

Polish poster for Red Beard by Stanislaw Zamecznik.
Akira Kurosawa made several movies about heroic, self-sacrificing doctors.  There was Drunken Angel (1948), in which Takashi Shimura plays an alcoholic slum doctor who attempts to treat a tubercular street punk played by Toshiro Mifune; this was Mifune’s first film for Kurosawa.  Then there was The Quiet Duel (1949), about a saintly doctor (this time played by Mifune) who accidentally contracts syphilis as a military doctor in WWII; in a time before penicillin, this destroys his life.  Or so I’ve heard.  The Quiet Duel is, as far as I can tell, the only Kurosawa film not currently available on Region 1 DVD.  The Criterion people should get on that.
And then there’s Red Beard, Kurosawa’s magisterial 1966 epic about the education of a young doctor in late Tokugawa Japan.  Our hero is Noboru Yasumoto (Yuzo Kayama), a privileged student of Dutch medicine (Dutch culture being the only European culture with which the Japanese had any direct contact for most of the Tokugawa period).  Yasumoto was expecting to be appointed doctor to the shogun, but circumstances beyond his control send him to a clinic that caters to the urban poor under the direction of the dedicated Dr. Kyojo Niide, also known as Red Beard (for his reddish beard, although the film is in black-and-white, so the redness is left to the imagination).  Niide is played by a regal Toshiro Mifune in one of his greatest performances (more on this momentarily).  When Yasumoto becomes acquainted with the Spartan conditions at Niide’s clinic, his initial reaction is revulsion.  The film will trace his evolution, under the guidance of Dr. Niide, from pride and indifference to deep human compassion and engagement.  Red Beard is one of the greatest, most pleasurable cinematic experiences that I’ve had in quite some time.

Kurosawa was always devoted to humanism, or perhaps it would be better to say humaneness, and never is this quality on greater display than in
Red Beard.  Kurosawa weaves a tapestry of humanity, from aristocrats and samurai to prostitutes and street people, and shows us that all human lives, no matter how marginal, have value.  And he does it without the cloying sentimentality that would have marred an American movie with a similar theme.  Red Beard is deeply moving, but it’s never saccharine.  Its action is firmly entrenched in the grimy realities of poverty and the human suffering that one is likely to encounter in the medical field.  Kurosawa and other Japanese directors of his generation would face a great deal of criticism over their “bourgeois humanism” from New Wave filmmakers like Nagisa Oshima in the 1960’s, but I think they overlook the subtlety of Kurosawa’s approach.  In their depiction of marginalized people, Kurosawa and Oshima have far more in common—realism, earthiness, clarity—than I think Oshima ever realized.
And God, the black-and-white looked good.
Now, I’ve spoken about this elsewhere (specifically, in my post on Kurosawa’s Dodes’ka-den (1970)), but a few details about the filming of Red Beard bear repeating.  This film was Kurosawa’s sixteenth and final collaboration with Toshiro Mifune.  The grueling production took two years, largely because of Kurosawa’s perfectionism.  The set on which the movie was filmed was a virtual facsimile of an Edo-era village, built from the ground up (and open to tourists during filming).  Such was Kurosawa’s attention to detail that even buildings that only appeared on screen for a few seconds had to be constructed with period-specific realism.  Now, during the production, Mifune had to maintain a thick beard (Red Beard has to have a beard, after all), which significantly limited the number of other film roles he could take during the production.  Mifune was used to making multiple movies a year and he needed to do so in order to fund his lavish lifestyle. The making of Red Beard seriously messed up his finances, which left him feeling embittered towards Kurosawa.  On top of this, Kurosawa, for the first time in their relationship, came away from the film disappointed with Mifune’s performance (an opinion I don’t share; I thought Mifune was excellent).  The result of all of this was that, after two years of hard work, Mifune and Kurosawa both came out of the experience angry at each other, and in their pride, neither was willing to seek out a reconciliation. 
And so that was the end of their working relationship (and their friendship, for that matter).  And it was the end of a Golden Age in both their careers.  Mifune had a few more great films in him (especially Masaki Kobayashi’s Samurai Rebellion (1967)), but his films were increasingly samurai b-movies and franchise projects (Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo and an appearance in one of the Tora-san movies).  As for Kurosawa, his career entered a rough patch with the commercial and critical failure of Dodes’ka-den and his firing from the production of Tora! Tora! Tora! While he eventually recovered from this slump to produce more masterpieces (Kagemusha (1980), Ran (1986)) his level of productivity would never return to pre-Red Beard levels.  But by then he could be forgiven for resting on his laurels.  He had made more unambiguously great films—Rashomon and Seven Samurai alone would be plenty of justification for a life’s work—than almost any other filmmaker and his position in world cinema was secure.  And if Red Beard constitutes the end of an era—both in Kurosawa’s career and in postwar Japanese cinema—it’s certainly a glorious note to go out on.  I would strongly encourage my readers to seek it out.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Eminently Civilized Barbarians: On Hans-Jurgen Syberberg’s Hitler: A Film From Germany

Here at The Octopus: Pray for Him, we’ve spoken extensively in the past about the moral uselessness of most works of art.  There’s this widespread liberal notion out there that art is somehow morally improving and I just don’t think that’s the case.  And this assertion has been brought home to me all the more clearly by my viewing of Hans-Jurgen Syberberg’s monumental Hitler: A Film From Germany (1977).  The film is a seven-hour collage of Brechtian stage craft, slide shows, and historical audio recordings which circles around the figure of Adolf Hitler and his place in German history and culture.  And it’s always disturbed me, now more than ever, how people with such a rich culture—and the Germans had a very rich culture—could commit some of the worst barbarisms in history.  Why does this shock me? Because apparently I can’t help but subscribe to that naïve liberalism I just derided.
Now, I’ve never been an expert on the Nazis—Bormann and Goering and Donitz all kind of blend together in my historical understanding—but they weren’t quite philistines, or at least not unabashed philistines.  The true philistine holds art in contempt.  The Nazis placed great value on art and had their own concept of aesthetics, with a strong foundation in German Romanticism., twisted though there take on it may have been.  They saw cinema as the artistic medium of the twentieth century.  They recognized the merit of the work of Fritz Lang and Thea von Harbou; in Syberberg’s telling, Hitler compulsively re-watched Lang’s Nibelung films, Siegfried and Kriemhild’s Revenge, much as, several decades later, a demented Nixon would repeatedly view Patton while carrying out his war in Southeast Asia.
George Orwell has an essay—and Christ knows I don’t want to look it up now—but he has an essay written during WWII in which he states, “While I write this, there are civilized people flying overhead trying to kill me.” Just how incongruous were the juxtapositions of German civilization and Nazi barbarism? Goethe’s house at Weimar was a stone’s throw away from the Buchenwald concentration camp.  In addition to Wagner, whose reputation has always been contested, and Bruckner, (whose reputation has also been debated to a lesser extent), Hitler was fond of Beethoven, Mahler, and Johann Strauss.  Can you picture that? The man responsible for Auschwitz listening to the sublime music of Beethoven.
Perhaps the best argument for Nazi philistinism can be found in their rejection of the Jewish representatives of German culture, which were some of its greatest contributors.  They destroyed Jewish café culture in Austria, they drove Zweig, Friedell, and Benjamin to suicide, they drove Arnold Schoenberg and Thomas Mann into exile (Mann wasn’t Jewish, but his wife and children were).  Austria especially, as we’ve discussed in a previous post, never recovered its cultural eminence.  The damage caused by the Nazi attacks on Jewish art was irreversible (I’m speaking here on a specifically artistic subject, but I am of course aware that the broader campaign of genocide against the Jews of Europe was far more appalling and catastrophic).

So, to return to Orwell: why were these civilized people, who had probably read Goethe and listened to Beethoven, flying over head, trying to kill him? Because civilization and morality fall into separate spheres, and the one generally doesn’t influence the other.  A person can be an eminently civilized barbarian.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Rehabilitating Rudyard Kipling

Rudyard Kipling.
Poor Rudyard Kipling—winner of one of the first Nobel Prizes for literature and once one of the most popular writers in the world—has long since seen his reputation fall into eclipse (which can’t trouble him terribly much, as he’s been dead for seventy-eight years).  His reputation first foundered on aesthetic grounds, then political, and we shall address each of these issues in turn.
Rudyard Kipling was born in British India in 1865, wrote his best work in the 1890’s and 1900’s, and had the misfortune to live until 1936, by which point his colorful Victorian narratives seemed woefully out of date.  As Robert Gottlieb points out in his introduction to Everyman’s Collected Stories of Kipling, the Nobel Laureate lived to see the publication of Hemingway, Woolf, Joyce, and other pioneers of modernism.  Kipling, a contemporary of Robert Louis Stevenson and H. Rider Haggard (of whom the latter was his close friend), outlived his own era.  And so, when he died, the general feeling amongst the literati was one of “oh, he was still alive?” He’s reminiscent in this respect of E. M. Forster, who published in the first thirty years of the twentieth century, starting in the Edwardian period, and who then lived a largely idle existence until his death in 1970, by which point people like Pynchon and Beckett had taken the novel in directions he could never have conceived of.
So, Kipling did not fit in well with his time.  For those who are hung up on literary movements and “zeitgeistiness” (to coin a phrase), that might be troubling, but it’s fundamentally not an aesthetic criticism.  If one is willing to look at Kipling’s work for what it is—and particularly the short stories, the form at which he excelled—one finds that Kipling is one of the greatest writers that the English language has ever produced.  To Kipling we owe such varied and thrilling stories as: “The Man Who Would Be King,” “Baa Baa Black Sheep,” “On a City Wall,” “Without Benefit of Clergy,” “The Mark of the Beast,” “Dray Wara Yow Dee,” and “Mary Postgate,” among many others.  Borges loved the stories, and Borges was rarely wrong when it came to questions of taste.  And Irving Howe says of Kipling’s novel Kim that it contains the most colorful English prose prior to the publication of Ulysses, which isn’t bad for someone who so many of the modernists dismissed.  Howe also points out that Kipling’s poems—of which, I must admit, I am not as fond—were a profound influence on the poetry of Bertolt Brecht who never failed “to be absolutely modern.” Kipling was a pioneer of writing vernacular dialogue, and his stories of soldiers and colonial administrators and Anglo-Indian boys who couldn’t distinguish between Hindi and English in many ways anticipate the works of Joyce and Faulkner.
Having established his aesthetic bona fides, let’s move onto Kipling’s more pressing problem, namely his appalling political incorrectness.  Because the fact of the matter is that Kipling was a racist and an enthusiastic supporter of British imperialism (he is, after all, the author of “The White Man’s Burden.”) So, ok, he was an asshole.  That’s not an aesthetic consideration.  I’d be willing to bet that the vast majority of his British and American literary contemporaries were also racists and imperialists (and anti-Semites and sexists and homophobes, while we’re at it).  Sir Arthur Conan Doyle got his “Sir” for propagandizing on behalf of the British effort in the Boer War; Virginia Woolf’s correspondence is peppered with casual anti-Semitism, despite the fact that her husband was Jewish (!).  Jack London believed that there were too many Chinese people and that they should be wiped out with biological weapons (the ostensibly left-wing London, who would say that “I’m a white man first and a socialist second.”) Graham Greene would in later years go back and replace some of the more egregiously racist and anti-Semitic epithets in his earlier novels (such that niggers became negroes and Jewesses just became women, although the opening line of dialogue in Our Man in Havana is still, “You see that nigger over there?”)

Jack London, who, for the record, was pro-genocide.
Now, don’t get me wrong: this is all appalling.  But the fact of the matter is that these are non-aesthetic concerns.  Plenty of writers have been bad people.  That has no bearing on the merit of their work.  William S. Burroughs shot his wife in the face, for Christ’s sake; it has no effect on the quality of Naked Lunch.  But unfortunately, in academia today, the approach to literature (and all the other arts) is rarely aesthetic.  The post-structuralist theories are all about racial and ethnic and sexual and colonial resentments.  Works of literature are artifacts to be mined to illustrate sociopolitical points and “reclaim” suppressed histories.  And so I once had an English professor tell us with a straight face that the reason we weren’t reading Kipling was because he wasn’t “politically correct.” And this professor didn’t think there was a problem with that.  But my God, if we were to weed out the classics that weren’t politically correct, what would be left?  We’d have Olaudah Equiano and Charlotte Perkins Gilman and that would be about it.

But for those of us who value literature as art (and art as art in general), that’s not enough.  We seek out works of quality literature because they are beautiful and we find them entertaining and aesthetically gratifying (I don’t like to make the distinction between the artistic and the merely entertaining, but that’s another argument).  So, to my fellow lovers of literature—and fellow lefties, for that matter—there is nothing wrong with embracing Kipling’s
work.  It doesn’t mean you endorse his abhorrent opinions, which should be self-evident to any reasonably intelligent adult.  And again, Borges signed off on it, and he wouldn’t steer you wrong.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Heinrich von Kleist is not Amused: On Arnaud des Pallières’s Michael Kohlhaas and the Perils of Literary Adaptation

There’s something off about almost every aspect of Arnaud de Pallières’s Michael Kohlhaas (2013), starting with the title, which at least isn’t his fault.  Kleist’s novella is called simply Michael Kohlhaas, as is de Pallières’s adaptation.  But for its American release it has inexplicably been given the unwieldy and ungrammatical title Age of Uprising: The Legend of Michael Kohlhaas.
Now, a brief refresher on Kleist’s novella: Michael Kohlhaas is a well-to-do sixteenth-century German horse trader.  While leading some of his horses to market, he is stopped by the agents of the evil Junker Baron Wenzel von Tronka, who demand that he pay a toll (which the authorities have already abolished) and present a passport.  Kohlhaas doesn’t have a passport, but he says he’ll get one when he arrives in town, and so the baron demands that he leave two of his finest horses behind as a guarantee.  Kohlhaas does so, leaving the horses along with one of his servants to look after them.  When he returns a few weeks later he finds that the horses have been worked nearly to death and that his servant has been brutally beaten and driven away.  He demands compensation from the baron, who refuses him.  He seeks redress through legal means, but the baron has influential relatives in the court, and so this avenue is closed off to him.  Finally, Kohlhaas’s wife offers to go to the Elector of Saxony’s court, where she has connections, but the guards there beat her up and she succumbs to her injuries and dies.  Wronged on every side and with no way to seek peaceable redress, Kohlhaas raises a small army and begins a bloody rampage against the baron and everyone else who stands in his way.
So, what do des Pallières (and Christelle Berthevas, with whom he co-wrote the screenplay) make of this?  First off, they transfer the action from Germany to France, thusly leaving out most of the political complexity that Kleist mined in the interactions of the small German states of the Holy Roman Empire.  In fact, it can be said that everywhere in the film, Kleist’s text has undergone a dramatic simplification.  Where Kleist’s hero had five children, des Pallières’s has only one.  Where Kleist has Kohlhaas fighting pitched battles with whole armies, des Pallières has him merely skirmishing with small squadrons (there’s a battle in Kleist where Kohlhaas defeats 500 men; his largest victory in the film is over a force of 18).  Finally, in Kleist’s work, Kohlhaas’s forces burn Wittenberg to the ground.  In the film, he disbands his army before a comparable attack on a town can take place.  Furthermore, the very force of Kohlhaas’s fury and brutality is largely elided in the film; almost nobody dies on screen.  We see people firing crossbows and then we cut to dead bodies.
By transplanting the film from Germany to France, the filmmakers also miss out on one of the most interesting questions of the story, which is the role of religion.  In Kleist, Kohlhaas is a recently converted Lutheran and Martin Luther himself intervenes to try to put an end to his bloody rampage.  In the film, the details of Kohlhaas’s faith are only roughly sketched: we see him reading and when a servant asks him if it’s the Bible, he says, “Yes, but it’s not in Latin.”  In Kleist, the religious climax of the book comes with a face-to-face meeting between Kohlhaas and Luther; in the film, Kohlhaas meets with an unnamed figure who’s clearly supposed to be Lutheresque, and who we discover is the translator of Kohlhaas’s French-language Bible.  I do not know if there is a comparable figure among the French Huguenots, but it’s an issue that the film isn’t terribly interested in exploring.

Mads Mikkelsen as Michael Kohlhaas.
One thing the movie does have going for it is its star: the glorious Mads Mikkelsen, who has one of the greatest screen presences of any actor of his time.  His tiny little eyes positively ooze charisma.  And although he appears suitably regal in the title role, even he has trouble injecting passion and energy into the rather tame Kohlhaas that Pallières and Berthevas have created.  There are several other big name actors in the film: Denis Lavant, Sergi Lopez, and the great Bruno Ganz, but all of them hover around the edges of the film.  I didn’t even become aware of the presence of Lavant and Lopez until the end credits and I couldn’t tell you what roles they played.  Everything in the movie is dependent on Mikkelsen and even an actor of his talents can’t quite bring this off.

To their credit, the filmmakers have improved the story in one key, structural respect.  In Kleist’s novella, the first half of the story deals with the injustices perpetrated against Kohlhaas and his subsequent vengeance, and it’s suitably exciting and cinematic.  The second half is mostly legal wrangling over Kohlhaas’s fate, with the weird last-minute addition of an old gypsy woman’s prophecy.  The filmmakers have significantly compressed the legal stuff and left out the gypsy thing entirely, which makes their story better plotted and altogether more coherent than Kleist’s.  But they’ve gone too far in their cutting; along with the tedium, they’ve taken out almost everything that makes Kleist’s novella so stirring in spite of its flaws.  Now, I’m well-aware that almost any cinematic adaptation of a literary work has to make some changes; different media have different conventions to abide by.  But in this movie, the changes are almost always for the worse.  They don’t make any changes without incurring a loss.  Which is a shame, because Michael Kohlhaas is a rich source that should have yielded a much better film.