Justice and vengeance become entwined in “Michael Kohlhaas,” Arnaud des Pallieres’ stolid treatment of Heinrich von Kleist’s influential novella about a 16th-century horse merchant whose mistreatment by those in power leads to an unholy uprising. Kleist’s direct language and straightforward storytelling are nowhere in evidence in Pallieres’ narratively challenged adaptation, featuring a French-speaking Mads Mikkelsen in one of his least impressive characterizations. Though the Cannes competition berth will generate a certain interest, there’s unlikely to be much horse trading on this title, even among fest programmers.

In 1969, when Volker Schlondorff made his “Michael Kohlhaas,” he added newsreel footage on the European release prints showing student protests around the world. The device served to make direct parallels between the novella’s themes and the unrest of ’68, highlighting the continued vitality of a tale featuring a morally upright figure resisting the corrupting influences of power. Kleist himself, a determinedly political author writing in 1808, used the based-on-fact case to draw comparisons with Napoleon’s thirst for dominance. Oddly given the richness of the theme, helmer Pallieres seems more inspired by landscape than by history or any contemporary resemblances.

In contrast to Kleist’s initially cheery protag, Mikkelsen’s Kohlhaas looks calmly superior from the get-go. He’s surprised to find a toll gate placed on his usual path to the horse market; the local Baron (Swann Arlaud, appearing both feral and hung over) has ordered his Manager (Christian Chaussex) to demand a passport. The Baron wouldn’t mind Kohlhaas’ horses either, and the Manager (clearly evil, given the actor’s scarred face and malicious grimace) demands the merchant leave behind two fine steeds as a guarantee since he doesn’t have papers.

In town, Kohlhaas learns that the passport requirement was made up, and also discovers that Cesar (David Bennent), the groomsman he left behind to take care of the collateral horses, was deliberately savaged by the Baron’s guard dogs. In addition, the two steeds have been mistreated and are at a shadow of their former strength. Kohlhaas seeks justice from the courts, but because the Baron’s influence is strong, the judges rule in his favor. While on her way to petition Marguerite, Princess d’Angouleme (Roxane Duran), for support, Kohlhaas’ wife, Judith (Delphine Chuillot), is brutally murdered.

Distraught over his beloved wife’s killing and furious that his rights have been trampled on, Kohlhaas repairs to the forest, where he gathers aggrieved men and does battle with the Baron and his henchmen. He’s joined by society’s detritus, including a one-armed man (Sergi Lopez) arriving like Sancho Panza (and speaking Catalan) on a donkey, and a giant (Guillaume Delaunay) who seemingly wandered in from a casting call for Little John in “Robin Hood.” As this band of un-merry men wage a bloody insurrection, a reformist theologian (Denis Lavant) tries to convince the devout Kohlhaas that his grievances are best left to God’s judgment.

In resetting the Kleist story from Germany to France, Pallieres (“Parc”) needed to make some changes to the text (in the novella, the theologian is Martin Luther himself). The loss of narrative cohesion, however, has less to do with locale than with conception and editing, since the helmer is at a loss to coax out the many subthemes, such as the Protestant-Catholic divide, that give the book such understated richness.

In a potentially interesting addition, the Governor (Bruno Ganz) is made extra-wary of rebellions because his father was killed in the Great Peasants’ Revolt, yet Pallieres consistently fails to make anything of such potentially enriching changes. Even more problematic, the pic neglects to highlight the most remarkable part of the story, which is Kohlhaas’ willing submission to a terrible justice after his grievances are fairly adjudicated.

Pallieres’ interest mostly lies in the lichen-stained landscape of France’s barren Cevennes region, which Kohlhaas and his men cross with almost comic regularity. The setting is unquestionably spectacular, and the use of natural light brings out the mustardy tonalities of the setting, though too often the reliance on sunlight casts faces in darkness while the ground looks resplendent. In the rare interior scenes, a torch or two wouldn’t go amiss.

Mikkelsen’s collars may be filthy but his locks of hair are always gracefully managed, accenting the shallow relief of his sculpted face, which unfortunately rarely changes from a granite-like fixedness. Given his strongly accented French, and an incongruous scene in which he speaks German, one presumes Kohlhaas is Teutonic, though again the film doesn’t know what to do with its own imposed additions.

An attractively lensed battle scene shot from above could have been engrossing, were it not for the intensely annoying distraction of over-miked wind. Portentous sound design is a major problem, made more heavy-handed by emphatic music featuring an oppressive tympanum. Odd, then, to suddenly switch, in the final scene, to a tune seemingly copied from ye olde worlde medieval fayre.

Cannes Film Review: ‘Michael Kohlhaas’

Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (competing), May 23, 2013. Running time: 121 MIN.

  • Production: (France – Germany) A Les Films du Losange (in France)/Polyband (in Germany) release of a Les Films d’Ici, Looks Filmproduktionen, Arte France Cinema, ZDF/Arte, Rhone-Alpes Cinema, Herodiade, K’ien Prods. production, with the participation of Canal Plus, Cine Plus, in association with Cinemage 6. (International sales: Les Films du Losange, Paris.) Executive producer, Serge Lalou.
  • Crew: Directed by Arnaud des Pallieres. Screenplay, Christelle Berthevas, des Pallieres, freely adapted from the novella by Heinrich von Kleist. Camera (color, widescreen), Jeanne Lapoirie; editors, Sandie Bompar, des Pallieres; music, Martin Wheeler, Les Witches; production designer, Yan Arlaud; costume designer, Anina Diener; sound (Dolby Digital), Jean-Pierre Duret, Melissa Petitjean; associate producers, Martina Haubrich, Gunnar Dedio; line producer, Florence Gilles; assistant director, Frederic Goupil; casting, Sarah Teper, Leila Fournier.
  • With: Mads Mikkelsen, David Bennent, Paul Bartel, Bruno Ganz, Melusine Mayance, David Kross, Swann Arlaud, Sergi Lopez, Amira Casar, Denis Lavant, Roxane Duran, Delphine Chuillot, Jacques Nolot, Christian Chaussex, Richard Capelle, Nicolas Capelle, Guillaume Delaunay. (French, Catalan, German dialogue)