Friday, February 4, 2011

"The Promised Land" Andrzej Wajda

"The Promised Land" is a visual feast, fast-paced, and every bit as ruthless as the cutthroat characters it depicts. The topic – the Industrial Revolution, and the characters – immoral greedy monsters – are ugly and mean, but Wajda's filmmaking is so virtuosic you watch just for the sheer craft, splendor, and runaway train of a plot. I find it hard to sit through movies where there are no sympathetic main characters and no possibility of a happy ending, but "The Promised Land" is addictively watchable. There's an orgy, a tiger, several mutilated bodies, fires, riots, history, and Wojciech Kilar's driving, award-winning score.

Anyone interested in the Industrial Revolution should see this movie. Fans of Dickens' "Oliver Twist" and Gaskell's "North and South" really must see it. I wish I could require my students to watch it. Wajda was determined to get every detail correct. In the DVD's extra features, an assistant director discusses a scene of indigent paupers receiving charity food. Wajda's team discovered that the indigent were fed from long, metal tables with bowls built right into them. They rebuilt such a table just for this scene, lasting a few minutes. They had special wooden spoons made, and then weathered them by soaking them in oil. The paupers' rags were similarly weathered. There is a lengthy scene where Anna (Anna Nehrebecka), a country aristocrat, travels to the city. The camera follows Anna and lays out Lodz before her in all its gritty, noxious detail: smoking chimneys, workers' funerals, fighting men, the Jewish quarter. The scene looks like documentary footage of a late nineteenth-century industrial city.

"The Promised Land" also takes the viewer into the mansions of Lodz, almost ridiculous in their sumptuousness, plunked down in so much filth, squalor, and despair. Ornate winding staircases, gilt-encrusted columns and ceiling murals lure on industrialists willing to wring every last penny from their desperate employees.

"The Promised Land" depicts Lodz's emergence as a textile manufacturing hub. Three friends, one a Polish aristocrat, one a Jew, and one a German, strive to build their own factory. They have few resources and must do dirty things to make their dreams of unlimited wealth a reality. Blond Karol (Daniel Olbrychski) has the face of a cherub and the soul of a serial killer. His entire being is omnivorous greed. Moryc (Wojciech Pszoniak) cheats another Jew to get his stake. After doing so, he practically collapses from the strain, and then breaks the fourth wall, winking at the audience. He's just an actor playing a part, he reminds us, as they all are, playing any part they want to get their highest ideal: cash.

The film also depicts workers and their plight. A dewy young mill hand is lured into prostitution. Others are consumed by the machines they work. Scenes of mutilated flesh are quite graphic, and yet not sensationalistic. This is the price poor people pay for bread, the film shows us. The camera does not linger. It keeps moving. Just like Lodz, just like men chasing cash, just like history.

There are a few characters who aren't utterly despicable. They appear, make small squeaks of decency, self-respect, and dignity, and are crushed by the inevitable. There is a stunning scene that is quite different from anything else in the film. The film moves quickly and purposefully, but in this scene men meet in a small room to play classical music. The scene is not at all essential to the plot. It moves with atypical languor. The scene seems to say, "Yes, people in Lodz had souls." That reminder makes the surrounding greed-induced frenzy all the more disturbing.

Some viewers protest "The Promised Land" as an anti-Semitic film, because of unpleasant Jewish characters. Indeed, there are unpleasant Jewish characters in the film. Virtually *every* character in the film is unpleasant – even the pretty, innocent child lured into prostitution. The film does not allow you to pity her, but implies that she was complicit in her own downfall. Further, every character is unpleasant in an ethnically- gender-, and socioeconomic-class-coded way. That is, the Polish peasants are unpleasant in a stereotypical way associated with peasants, the one priest is unpleasant in a way associated with priests. The men are bad men, the women are bad women. The priest is onscreen for minutes only, but he leers at a pretty factory hand. Anna has a big heart, but she is ineffectual and not smart enough to see through Karol. Other women are whores or idiots. The Polish aristocrat aggressively sells out every high ideal his ancestors held dear. He desecrates an image of Poland's icon, the Black Madonna of Czestochowa. The Germans are either sadistic and autocratic or lumpen and dull. The Polish peasant who manages to rise above his station is an insufferable, loud-mouthed boor. This film isn't anti-Semitic; it is brutally misanthropic. It depicts people at their worst.

Again, it is Wajda's virtuosic filmmaking that makes all this endurable. At a key moment, a rock flies through a window. That rock means much – the inevitable march of history that has brought industrialists high and might also bring them very, very low. Any other filmmaker would probably have handled the rock through a window as a crashing sound followed by a thud. Wajda films this scene with such skill and poetry that the rock becomes a character in the film. It demands, and gets, the viewer's full attention. Subsequent action is filmed *from the rock's point of view.* Poland is a small, distant, and much contested country. It's filmmaking like that that amply earned Wajda his honorary Academy Award.


  1. I think you're overlooking much of what Wajda injects here. There are plenty of "good" characters: Horn, Zoska's brother, Anka (whom you undervalue a little). Even Karol has some redeeming qualities. He's ruthlessly ambitious, yes, but he loves Anka in his own fashion and he wants to build an enduring institution.

    Ultimately good is marginalized, killed or smothered. Karol's attempt to create a new factory, thereby challenging the establishment in Lodz, is sabotaged by his own moral weakness. And so he follows the only path that remains to him (at least to his mind), which is to join the establishment.

    Regardless, he is not evil. He is a flawed character, but one who might have thrived and lived a (relatively) moral life in a less caustic environment.

    Also, this film has nothing to do with Lodz's "emergence as a textile manufacturing hub." The industry dominates the city long before the start of the film.

  2. ///The men are bad men, the women are bad women.///

    By no means could I agree with such an assertion.

    With all the respect to your notion, I think it's mere simplification.

    How could you value this film so high, if you presume that it is populated with such an unequivocal characters?

    IMO, these characters, with no exception, are complicated, controversal and rich.

    Karol Borowiecki was ruthless indeed, but he knew that it costs, and he did pay the ultimate price with dignity and with no hesitation.

    Moryc Welt was homosexual, deeply in his forbidden, yet fiery love for Borowiecki (you may spot it following Moryc's image watchfully). The main motive for Moryc's working, despicable as it was, wasn't the greed, but his total devotion to Karol.

    Max Baum, submissive yet capable to rob his elderly father (declaring him senile, under Karol's pressure), tormented by his guilt, as well by his hopeless love to Anka.

    Anka indeed was smart enough to "see through Karol". She loved him, and suffered greatly because of his faults.

    Zucker - cynical dealer, obscenely rich, - and deeply devoted, worshipping to his family man, whose feelings were trampled and sufferings ridiculed.

    Müller - coarse, grotesquely uncultured nuvorish - at the same time loving and caring father, painfully feeling for his daugther, Mada, the girl vulnerable in her stupidity. Poor Mada, like any very stupid person, she was somewhat touching and evoking pity.

    Even the odious Bucholz - lonesome man hated by everybody around him, whose sheer unhappines declared itself as an extreme haughtiness and cruelty. His heartwrenching last moments expose fully how weak and miserable his real personalty was.

    Who else? - Lucy Zuker, depraved but happy of her motherhood to be; Trawinski, vain and arrogant, but capable to sacrifice himself for his principes; and so on.

    The general value of this excellent movie are its characters, elaborated to perfection, granted that the movie's other qualities are flawless.


Bieganski the Blog exists to further explore the themes of the book Bieganski the Brute Polak Stereotype, Its Role in Polish-Jewish Relations and American Popular Culture.
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