I first heard of Age of Uprising when it was recommended to me on Netflix. The cover of the movie shows a stern faced Mads Mikkelsen (could there be a more awesome name?) staring off into the distance, sword on his back, flames behind him. The description of the film – Michael, a horse merchant and family man in 16th-century France, is betrayed by a nobleman and decides to fight back — against impossible odds. -could easily have described Braveheart, minus a few details. The trailer online is incredibly cheesy and filled with the sounds of clanging swords and the voice of that one narrator who has done every action movie trailer since 1995.
So, when I started watching, I was ready for a Braveheart knockoff. The film opens with Mads and another man leading a small herd of horses across a rocky plain. The music was reminiscent of A Fistful of Dollars and I assumed foretold a neo-western, filled with battle and stoicism. Yet, despite the barren landscapes and stoney protagonist, the themes of Age of Uprising are decidedly different from any western or Braveheart style epic. The film dives deep into the questions that Mel Gibson never even thought to ask.
Braveheart and Age of Uprising certainly do share similar plot lines. Like William Wallace, Hans Kohlhaas* (renamed Michael in the 18th century novel on which the movie is based), was a historical figure. In the movie, Kohlhaas is a merchant wronged by a certain nobleman. His horses are abused and his faithful servant, Cesar, is attacked by the noble’s dogs. Michael’s attempts to find justice in the courts prove fruitless. When Kohlhass seems on the verge of erupting, his wife offers to go to “the princess” to plead his case. She returns mortally wounded. This proves to be the tipping point for Michael Kohlhaas. He gathers his servants and faithful friends and attacks the home of the noble. Soon, he finds himself the outlaw leader of a small rebellion.
Up to this point, the plot isn’t far from Braveheart. But many of the scenes play out quite differently. In most historical action films, the battle scenes are gory but exciting. And often glorious. Age of Uprising has none of these characteristics. There are only really two battle scenes. The first shows Michael and his dozen or so followers storming the egregious nobleman’s keep. They do so quietly with crossbows. No epic speech, no dramatic music, and – perhaps the most noticeable difference – no quick cuts from action shot to action shot. Instead, the viewer follows the men as they walk throughout the keep. We hear the twang of crossbow and the yelps of dogs. We see blood pools and watch as they draw flies.
In the only other battle scene, Michael Kohlhaas doesn’t actually participate. He sits his horse and watches from a rocky pinnacle. The viewer watches from this distance. We see men riding their horses across the rocky plain for what feels like several minutes. Then, brief combat. It’s almost impossible to tell what it happening and who is winning. Several men fall. A few minutes later – stillness.
“Are you doing this for mother?” Michael’s daughter Lisbeth asks.
“No,” the stoic father answers.
“Are you doing this for the horses?” she asks.
Then what? Justice is the unspoken answer. Justice.
Then, as the battle quietly ends, a lone rider treks up the hill. Cesar, Michael’s servant, slumps from his saddle and dies.
The rest of the movie shows Michael wrestling with and attempting to justify his attempts at this justice. When one of his men steals from a farm, Michael has him hanged. At this moment, an itinerant preacher finds the outlaws and scoffs at this new authority. “Is this what you call justice?” he laughs. Michael defends himself as best he can. The authorities wronged me. They killed my wife. I have no choice. This ought to be enough, right? Enough for vigilantism. Enough for rebellion. Certainly, it’s enough to drive every major action movie. But the preacher doesn’t buy it. What is the outcome of this? And what about the scores of innocents who will die? The peasants whose farms will burn? The poor who serve in the king’s army? The poor who rebel? And their families? But I have no choice!
You always have a choice, he tells Michael. “Death is a choice. If you do not kill, you do not die.” He doesn’t mean physical death, of course, but the spiritual death we die when we chose to harm others. He advises Michael to lay down his arms and, during Confession, he refuses to grant absolution to the outlaw leader when he can’t bring himself to forgive the nobleman who wronged him. Forgive one’s enemies? Such an idea is absurd, of course. Unless you’re a Christian.
But Michael is a Christian and he struggles mightily with the revenge he lusts for and the forgiveness he knows his faith demands. Before Michael draws blood on his quest, he tells his men, “The bible tells us to forgive our enemies. I hope God never forgives us the way we are about to forgive the baron.” In any other movie, this would be a moment of badassery, a quote for the poster. But, in this film, the words taste bitter and foretell a dark night for the protagonist.
In the end, Michael does receive his justice. He is sentenced to death for his role in the uprising. In the last few minutes of the movie, we see human justice doled out quickly. Michael’s horses are returned to him. He receives blood money for the slain members of his house. One small purse for his wife. One small purse for his servant. The nobleman will serve a short spell in prison. Michael will get the sword. And what else can human justice achieve? We can punish with fines or prison or even death. But we can never truly restore what has been lost.
In the end, Michael finds the painful limits of human justice. There is a moment, when he sees his horses again, that he seems pleased. He doesn’t smile. There’s just a brief look of satisfaction in his eyes. But the moment is fleeting. His young daughter is there to inherit the horses and blood money. She wants none of Michael’s justice. She wants her mother. She wants her father. But all he can give her is horses.
This isn’t a morality tale. Michael isn’t killed by his thirst for revenge. Neither is he killed by an inherently evil political system. Instead, he seems to be the victim of the flaws endemic to all human attempts at justice.
In one telling scene, earlier in the movie, Michael explains scripture to a young boy by a fire. He reads to him from the second letter of Paul to the Corinthians, “Now we see through a glass darkly.” Unfortunately for Michael, this metaphor also describes his pursuit of justice. He sees injustice clearly. But he can only glimpse the justice that could counter it. He knows real justice must exist but perceives it “through a glass darkly.” It is heartbreaking to watch Michael understand this just before the sword falls.
This is the end Michael Kohlhass chooses. But is there even another choice. The preacher says there is. He says we must choose life. Choose forgiveness. Choose to remove ourselves from an earthly justice of scales and coins. Michael foregoes this choice so the movie can’t show us the outcome. But most of us, hopefully, have seen those who have made this choice. We’ve seen those who have lived out Christ’s bizarre admonition to forgive radically. If not personally, at least in the lives of the saints. And it seems their lives are the better for it. We cannot see the complete fulfillment of their choices. But we do have hope that the promise is real. We must hold on to this hope. Because, to embrace the alternative is to choose death.
*I’m pretty sure Kohlhaas means “cabbage house” in German. I’m not sure what that means for this movie.