Early Godard begins with Breathless in 1960 and concludes with Weekend in 1967, with an astonishing run of eight or nine masterpieces in between. There are a lot of arty movies from this era that I learned to love in my yoot but don’t return to — I’m going to go out on a limb and wager that I probably won’t ever see Persona again in this life. But I do not get tired of these Godard movies. I think it’s because the sublimity is leavened with stupidity. Or rather the other way around. The beauty emerges in glimpses from the muck. It’s beautiful despite Godard’s clear commitment to making it ugly. No, that’s not it. It’s because they are hilarious. Maybe.
Imagine Le déjeuner sur l’herbe, but the diners are armed hippies who’ve just crawled away from car crashes, the menu is comprised of roasted bank manager and peasant-commune-slaughtered pig, and the soundtrack is a combination of frantic pop music, honking horns, and earnest readings of Mao and Saint-Just. Something like that is what you get here. We should screen this with Renoir’s Partie de campagne — that would be a hoot. If we could show them on a bedsheet at the site of Castro’s old camp in the Sierra Maestra and get J. G. Ballard to make the popcorn, that would be ideal.
Von Kleist is an author I’ve often heard referenced — in particular I remember that Rilke’s Duino elegy about the harlequins owes Von Kleist some kind of debt I forget — but had never read. Thanks to the good people at Melville House Publishing and their lovely editions of novellas like this one, I’ve at last been inspired.
This is a relentless little story which quite nicely maps onto a lot of contemporary issues and quandaries. Here’s the question in a nutshell: To what extent is it acceptable to commit injustices in the course of seeking redress for injustices? You could ask this of the prisoners of Guantanamo, and you could ask it too of Michael Kohlhaas.
Kohlhaas, a prosperous citizen, is done wrong by a nobleman, who seizes two of Kohlhaas’s horses under the guise of some bogus regulations. When Kohlhaas tries to pursue redress through legal channels, the nobleman’s friends in high places see to it that the petitions are squashed. Then Kohlhaas, enraged — one must imagine him played by Klaus Kinski at this point — takes matters into his own hands, terrorizing the countryside in an effort to force the ruling classes to make him whole. From here events swirl into ever-tightening circles of moral hazard and illogic, where it is increasingly difficult to say who is in the right, or what “right” might even be. The funhouse claustrophobia and panic reminded me strongly of Kafka’s The Trial, and I was not surprised to find out with a little research on Wikipedia that this novella was a favorite of Franz’s.