Like a western with swords

LESS ORDINARY: Mads Mikkelsen plays a horse dealer turned rebel leader in Michael Kohlhaas.
LESS ORDINARY: Mads Mikkelsen plays a horse dealer turned rebel leader in Michael Kohlhaas.

It's swords and crossbows instead of six shooters and rifles, but French film Michael Kohlhaas could be a cousin to the western, right down to the enigmatic anti-hero of the title, played by Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen.

While set in the mountainous Cevennes region of southern France in the 16th century, this isn't a flashy period drama dominated by the costume department.

"Intuitively, what I expressed to my crew and team was that we were not going to do an re-enactment of history. We were going to do an evocation of history," says the film's director and co-writer Arnaud des Pallieres.

"Right from the start I asked my costume designer and my art director to be extremely humble. Very often when you do a period drama this is where people [express] all their artistry. I absolutely did not want this. I thought that costume and set design could be a real obstacle and could be counter-productive to the project in itself.

"Strangely enough, I said to my costume designer, 'What you have to do is draw your inspiration not from the French fashion of that time, not from the Italian, which were much more sophisticated. You have to draw your inspiration from the way German people dressed at the time. It was much more geometric and much more simple and you have to simplify it even more.' "

Des Pallieres says the result brought his film closer to that of a 19th-century western.

"The western actually relies on the scenery, the faces, on the sweat, the dust and dirt, the animals and the horses, the insects. The western is also a moral adventure and this is what really defines the western. This is why we feel that [our film] is very contemporary and modern."

In the film Michael Kohlhaas is a prosperous horse dealer and happy family man. But when he's treated unfairly by a lord he raises an army and attacks those in power, demanding that his rights be restored. Des Pallieres' film is based on a novella of the same name by German author Heinrich von Kleist. Von Kleist's historical inspiration was a 16th-century merchant Hans Kohlhasem, whose horses were stolen by a Saxon nobleman. After failing to get justice by normal channels, Kohlhasem assembled an army and attacked Saxon authorities.

Des Pallieres first read the novella 26 years ago. "I was studying cinema and a friend of mine gave me the book. He advised me to read it, saying: 'I am going to do an adaptation of this book when I can'. So it is very likely that even before I started reading it, I had a take on the possibility of an adaptation.

"When I started reading it the desire to make it into a film came very quickly, even before I finished reading it. [But] I felt a little jealous [of my friend]. I didn't want to consider [adapting] it because I felt I needed to respect my friend."


Des Pallieres says in hindsight he's pleased he didn't make it when he was younger. "I wasn't wise enough, I didn't have the skills." It meant the director, whose earlier films include 2008's Parc, based on the novel Bullet Park by John Cheever, learned a lot as a film-maker before embarking on Michael Kohlhaas. By that point his friend had also stopped making films.

Des Pallieres decided to set it in France rather than Germany because he wanted it to be in French. But the lead didn't have to be a Frenchman.

He was first keen on Mikkelsen, who stars in television series Hannibal, about four or five years ago, prior to the actor's success in A Royal Affair and The Hunt, for which he won the best actor at the Cannes Film Festival.

"I knew I wasn't to find an actor in France. I started searching for actors in Italy and in Poland and when somebody showed me Mads' face I thought it was an incredible face. It was one of those cinema faces for genre films.

"But then I had doubts whether he could express the complexity of the role because in my film it was an ordinary man that later became extraordinary. [I thought for] Mads it's not possible to be an ordinary man because he is so exceptional. He's such an extraordinary person. I had to be sure he could be the ordinary man.

"But after seeing him in [the film] After the Wedding I saw how he could act like a man in love, who is almost shaking when he is giving a present to his wife, in fear that she may not like it. So then I could see that he could be this man."

Also impressed with Mikkelsen is co-star French actress Delphine Chuillot, who plays his wife Judith. Chuillot says Mikkelsen gave a lot and it included a scene where she's placed on a table after being attacked.

"When we were actually shooting it, it was very him and me. I could feel the heat of his face. I could feel the heat of his tears. His emotion really gave me a lot when we were shooting this scene. He was so heavily engaged. There was a lot of emotion. It was so unbelievable. I had the impression I was levitating from the table.

"We all finished the scene being extremely moved and shaking – and very happy to have succeeded."


Michael Kohlhaas is released on DVD in New Zealand today.

The Dominion Post