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  • Warning: Spoilers
    This is another of those films from the 1960's that have apparently disappeared into the black hole that ought to have been reserved for some of the big-budget trash being made nowadays. It harks back to an era when halfway intelligent scripting and depth of characterization were deemed more important than brain-curdling eye candy and mindless special effects. And although not exactly what I would call a classic, it is nonetheless worthy of remembrance, at least among those of us elderly enough to remember it. Some of what follows may possibly be a bit of a spoiler, if there are any copies of this movie left to spoil, so be ye warned before reading further.

    The film is based on an 1811 novella by Heinrich von Kleist, which in turn was based on the exploits of an actual fifteenth-century German horse trader named Hans Kohlhase. The story, in a nutshell, runs more or less as follows. On his way to market to sell his horses, Kohlhaas is intercepted by the minions of a nobleman named Tronka. He is informed that he is trespassing on Tronka's land, must pay a toll in order to continue, and winds up being forced to leave two of his horses behind as a surety. Upon returning to reclaim the horses, he finds that they have been maltreated and starved. Outraged, he seeks justice through official channels, but is stonewalled at every turn by the prevailing old-boy network. At length, his indignation erupts into violence. Brushing off advice to "just let it go," he takes up arms, gathers a band of similarly disenfranchised people, and starts an insurrection. In the end, of course, his insurrection is crushed, he is captured and condemned to die by one of the cruelest forms of execution ever devised: to be broken on the wheel.

    Although fairly faithful to its original sources, the film does have a tendency to portray the character as a revolutionary, and at times even as a bit of a patriot and folk hero, rather than as the mere vengeful victim of injustice and local rabble-rouser that the real Kohlhase probably was. Nonetheless, the essential point of the story is not lost.

    David Warner gives a typically intense performance as Kohlhaas. Whatever the character's motives may have been, the final scene of the film is unforgettable. Just before his execution, Kohlhaas learns that his case has finally been settled in his favor. His horses are returned to him in good condition, he says his goodbyes to them and sets them free. As he is hoisted aloft upon the wheel, broken and dying, he sees them galloping away across the plains and smiles contentedly.

    The story of Michael Kohlhaas has certainly had some impact on later films. E. L. Doctorow was sufficiently inspired by it to adapt much of its thematic material to his novel (as well as the 1981 film) Ragtime, recasting the character of Kohlhaas as a black ragtime musician named Coalhouse Walker, who reacts similarly to an unredressed injury by a racist white policeman. And one can only wonder whether Mel Gibson was in any way influenced by it in his popular retelling of the story of William Wallace. Presumably Mel would know.
  • I first saw this movie on late night TV in 1975. Actually that is the only time I have ever seen it. It must have made some kind of good impression on me or I would not remember it. HBO about 10 years ago made a version called "The Jack Bull," which takes place in Wyoming. HBO's version is nothing compared to the 1969 version with David Warner. This movie was the first time I recognized David Warner, although his career began many years before this movie.

    I have searched for years to find a video--tape or DVD--of the movie but have found none available.

    If anyone knows where I can buy a copy, please let me know. I once thought that all movies were available but I have never been able to find this one.
  • Warning: Spoilers
    "Michael Kohlhaas - Der Rebell" is a West German German-language film from 1969, so two more years only until this one has its 5th anniversary and it will be the exact same year that director Volker Schlöndorff will have its 80th birthday as he was 30 when this 95-minute film was released. It was nominated at Cannes and lead actor David Warner also got a German Film Award nomination for his portrayal of the title character. However, the by far most known actor (or actress) in this film is Anna Karina, who plays the female with the most screen time, not really a lead though as her screen time is still limited and ends quickly due to the tragic story on some occasions in here. You will also find Anita Pallenberg in here that worked with Schlöndorff on other occasions too and even a Bond villain is in this one, or the actor who portrays him, even if not the most known for sure. And Rolling Stones member Keith Richards has a tiny performance too, which surprised me a bit. However, Schlöndorff is known for working with actors from all kinds of countries and making films in all kinds of languages, so the multi-cultural aspect here is not that convincing.

    This is the story of Michael Kohlhaas, a simple man with (as we find out) an enormous willpower and sense for justice as he starts bringing hell upon an official who cheated him out of two healthy horses. I remember we read this Kleist novel at school and since then I remember liking it. The story just is that good and there is a lot of depth in here that will inevitably make you think. I definitely prefer the first half of this film over the second, but both are pretty good, which is thanks to Schlöndorff's vision, but also Warner's range. The rest of the cast are all fairly good too. The film makes powerful statements about the legal system centuries ago and it is a great subject for discussion up until to which point Kohlhaas was in the right and an innocent man. I also really like the ending here, in which justice is restored and the scene with the two horses running into freedom symbolizing justice, maybe symbolizing both judgments equally even, is truly powerful. This story has been turned into a movie on other occasions too, the most known being the one starring Mads Mikkelsen from not too long ago and that one is as good as this one here, even if the approaches are pretty different. All in all, I very much recommend this color film from half a century ago (maybe more already depending on when you read the review). It's definitely not a film for everyone, but if you manage to warm up to it, you will have a great time. Having read the novel is not essential here to like or even love the film. I'm not too big on all of Schlöndorff's early works, but this one here is certainly a success. Go see it.