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At the turn of the century, Lodz, Poland was a quick-paced manufacturing center for textiles, replete with cutthroat industrialists and unsafe working conditions. Three young friends, a Pole, a Jew and a German, pool their money together to build a factory. The movie follows their ruthless pursuit of fortune. Written by
"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 on screen 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.
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