Critics generally regard Michael Kohlhaas (Michael Kohlhaas—Der Rebell, 1969) to be one of Schlöndorff's failures, a film whose story leaves audiences cool, whose acting is inappropriate and unaffecting, one that fails as literary adaptation, as precise political analysis, and as popular entertainment. As literary adaptation, it brings the text of Heinrich von Kleist to the screen. In updating Kleist, Schlöndorff deliberately relates the rebellion of the character Kohlhaas to the social unrest of the late 1960s, rendering Kohlhaas a work that mirrors and comments on the student and worker revolts of the more modern period. As mass entertainment, Kohlhaas evokes two popular film genres—the archetypal Hollywood form of the Western and the distinctively German genre of the Heimatfilm. The result is a motion picture pulled by the three often contradictory forces of literature, politics, and film genre. These tensions make Kohlhaas both interesting and inconsistent.
Schlöndorff's decision to adapt Kleist's short novel, which was drawn from an authentic chronicle of sixteenth-century events, would seem to have held potential for a commercially successful film. Kleist's novella tells of an honest, hard-working, religiously devout horse trader, Michael Kohlhaas, who becomes a terrorist, a guerrilla warrior against an aristocrat. Junker Wenzel von Tronka has cheated him out of two fine black horses. Kohlhaas becomes a popular Robin Hood—like hero among oppressed peasants in the land, a rebel against abusive authority, a leader with grass roots appeal. Yet Michael Kohlhaas is also a story of failure, of corrupted revolution. Characters like Stern, a stable hand who turns into a wastrel; Katrina, a prostitute; and Nagel (Nagelschmidt in Kleist's original), an opportunistic robber, join up with Kohlhaas not out of a sense of justice or righteousness, but out of their own selfinterest. Kohlhaas's revolution, doomed as it is to political failure, ends up losing its moral direction as well. This pessimistic outcome may well be one reason why the work had trouble finding a popular audience.