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Michael Kohlhaas: reviews

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Jan. 1st, 1970 | 08:20 pm

Samuel Wilson – Mondo 70

Volker Schlondorff's adaptation of Heinrich von Kleist's 19th century historical novel about a 16th century rebellion in Saxony is a relic of that strange time when Hollywood was willing to try its luck on practically anything. American producers bankrolled a German crew working in Czechoslovakia with an international cast, including some Rolling Stones hangers-on (and according to legend, Keith Richards himself as an extra) and while IMDB says it opened in the U.S. in May 1969, I can't find evidence of that initial American run, under either its original title or the alternate rubric, Man on Horseback.

It received its American TV premiere as a CBS Late Movie in December 1972. Kohlhaas doesn't seem to have played theatrically in New York until 1980, after Schlondorff had earned some notoriety as the director of The Tin Drum. In a way, it's a typical film of the 1969-71 period -- idiosyncratically ambitious and an absolute commercial disaster in America …

Like Julian Buchs' A Bullet for Sandoval, this ostensibly more prestigious production is a story in which a righteous man's revenge far exceeds his original grievance. Unlike the more stylized spaghetti western, Kohlhaas is a stark, grimy history play in the manner of the Czech directors on whose territory much of it was shot, as well as Schlondorff's "New German Cinema" movement.

The two films have in common a generic continental concern of the period with the cruelty and injustice of history, the injustice in either case guaranteeing an excess of cruelty when victims finally lash out. In Kohlhaas the excesses of rebellion take Schlondorff close to spaghetti territory, especially in the town-sacking scene, during which Stanley Meyers' score is suddenly enhanced by dissonantly anachronistic electric guitars while Michael's less reputable men run amok.

This turn of the rebellion toward viciousness and outright crime probably came as a rude surprise to those original viewers who may have seen Kohlhaas's movement building into some sort of proto-hippy youth uprising after the deserter (Michael Gothard) and his doxy (Anita Pallenberg) are introduced. What looks like an idealistic feud, and remains one in Kohlhaas's own mind, is quickly corrupted.

Because Michael himself remains incorruptible, it's perhaps inevitable that he ends up paying for everyone else's sins in a suggestively gruesome finale. That sort of finish sets apart the more artistically ambitious "history of cruelty" films from spaghetti westerns, which usually allow their antiheroes to go out, if they even lose, in a blaze of glory, with their boots on ... The history-of-cruelty films prefer to emphasize the inexorable power of Power, the inescapable embrace of injustice, even if Michael Kohlhaas is allowed the symbolic grace note of freeing the horses ...

Full review

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New York Times: 20 June 1980

A handsome, straightforward adaption of the 1810 novella written by Heinrich von Kleist, about a rigorously honest man named Michael Kohlhaas, a successful horse dealer who, when the courts refuse to uphold his claim against a rich landowner, takes the law into his own hands. The setting is a small German principality and the time the mid-16th century. In his pursuit of the landowner, the single-minded Kohlhaas gathers together a small armed band that first burns down the landowner's castle, sacks one city and eventually threatens the entire country. Thus Kohlhaas, first seen as the unquestioning recipient of God's favor, suddenly becomes a bandit, operating outside the laws he once invoked and which will eventually doom him.”

Full review

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Review from unknown source

He was discovered in Herostratus, Don Levy's very interesting film, in which he played the principal role. His spectacular performance, which alternated moments of violence with lyric sequences done in very long takes, was noticed by Volker Schlondorff, who signed him for Michael Kohlhaas.

In this intense chronicle of a peasant revolt, Michael Gothard played the part of a young soldier who joined Kohlhaas' band, but who, refusing to obey, looted for his own gain, and finally died by hanging. His truculent performance, especially in the last scenes with Anita Pallenberg, earned him a very similar role in “The Last Valley”, James Clavell's ponderous allegory.

Full review on the Michael Gothard Tribute Site

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