He rode, under an assumed name, to an inn, where, as soon as night had broken, in his coat, and with a pair of concealed pistols that he had captured in Trockenburg, he entered Luther's room. Luther, who sat at his lectern surrounded by papers and books, saw the odd stranger open the door and bolt it behind him, and asked him who he was and what he wanted. And the man, who held his hat reverently in his hand, at first said nothing, overcome by a feeling of shyness and horror that he had caused in him, then responded that he was Michael Kohlhaas, the horse trader; and Luther right away called out, "Begone from here," and at the same time, as he reached from his lectern towards a bell, added: "Your breath is plague and to be near you is perdition!" Kohlhaas, showing his pistol without stirring from his place, said, "Most worthy sir, this pistol, if you ring this bell, will stretch me lifeless under your feet! Sit down and listen to me; by the very angels whose psalms you record, you are nowhere more secure than with me." Luther, as he sat down, asked: "What do you want?" Kohlhaas responded: "I want to refute your opinion of me, that I am an unrighteous man!"- Heinrich von Kleist, "Michael Kohlhaas" (1810)
"Michael Kohlhaas" is a very weird story. It is, in essence, comic, but it is told with all the blood and pathos of a tragedy; it is never even clear whether Kleist's goal is to explore the moral implications of duty and revenge or to mock traditional attempts to do so. In brief, the plot is this. The eponymous sixteenth-century horse trader protagonist has two horses stolen from him by a local nobleman. When the nobleman refuses to give them up, and legal means prove unsuccessful, Kohlhaas dedicates his life to revenge, first burning down the nobleman's house and then ravaging all of Saxony with an ever-growing army of angry peasants. Eventually he is granted some semblance of justice, and immediately submits himself to execution to atone for his crimes. The whole story is played entirely straight, despite the obvious disproportionality of Kohlhaas's response; what interests Kleist seems not even to be comedy or morality as such, but simply the grotesque ambiguity of Kohlhaas's position. ("He was both the most righteous and the most abhorrent man of his time.")
What could Luther be doing here, then? Beyond the setting, there is little truly historical about Kleist's story. To be sure, the events it describes are supposed to immediately evoke the Peasants' War and Luther's eagerness to take the side of the lords against the radical-Protestant peasantry. But the historical aspect seems not even to be relevant here: it could be completely discarded without any loss of clarity or necessary context. And even if the context were to be preserved, making Luther a character who talks and publishes proclamations and stays in inns seems to have been entirely unnecessary--although it does provide occasion for a typically ambiguous gesture on Kohlhaas's part (unlike the Hollywood movies that this scene so clearly recalls, here he is threatening to kill himself with his own pistol).
One explanation for Luther here might simply be the kind of instinctive, reflexive historicization characteristic of the period. The story is set in the past, so the past must be made to speak through it, whether it makes any sense or not. (This is also not unlike Hollywood, where a movie about the nineteenth century, for instance, necessarily has to feature the Elephant Man.) At the same time, the story is billed as being "from an old chronicle," and even this rudimentary framing device turns the Luther episode into a bit of a misfit. It even contrasts stylistically with the rest of the text, which mostly keeps to the detached and empirical style consistent with its supposed provenance: the very intimacy of the encounter with Luther, when surrounded by the rest of the text, is rather shocking.
My explanation of the Luther scene is only a little clearer. What follows Kohlhaas's line above is a long conversation about how he managed to arrive at the point of burning down cities, when his original intention was only to get his horses back. Luther is in a position to make moral judgments, and he makes them--but in a way that is just as ambiguous as all the other moral resolutions in the story. (Luther gives Kohlhaas absolution on the condition that he forgive his enemies. Kohlhaas forgives all the nobleman's servants, but refuses to forgive the man himself until he returns his horses, "fat and well-nourished.") The scene is there as a kind of religious foreshadowing of Kohlhaas's later trial, and it was necessary because otherwise the stakes would not even make sense. But the attempt to render things clear is not successful. Even here Kleist can't resist dark comedy and moral ambiguity, and can certainly not escape the moral ambiguity of Luther himself. Michael Kohlhass is thus a tragedy, but a tragedy manqué--just as it is also a comedy manqué.