The Promised Land review – Andrzej Wajda’s anti-capitalist comic opera is still razor sharp

Estimated read time 3 min read

Andrzej Wajda’s queasily compelling film from 1975, adapted by him from a novel by Wladysław Reymont, is an expressionist comic opera of toxic capitalism and bad faith, carried out by jittery entrepreneurs whose skills include insider trading, worker-exploitation and burning down failing businesses for the insurance. It is set in late 19th-century Łódź, a supposed promised land of free enterprise, whose night skies are shown by Wajda as more or less permanently red with factories set ablaze.

Our three gruesome heroes are Karol (Daniel Olbrychski) who is a Pole, Maks (Andrzej Seweryn) who is German, and Moryc (Wojciech Pszoniak) who is Jewish; this last being considered in these times effectively a separate nationality, and in fact the uneasy suspicion between these identities creates something a little like the mood in Danzig, or Gdańsk, in Günter Grass’s The Tin Drum. This trio of ambitious young blades want to join forces and own their own cotton factory, seeing the big money to be made in rapidly industrialising Łódź where raw materials, credit and labour are all relatively affordable. But they need capital, and their respective fathers and employers aren’t coming up with enough. Karol is however having an affair with the blowsy wife of a well-connected local businessman and she gives him secret information of a planned hike in import duty on cotton, allowing him to make a staggeringly lucrative insider market bet. But, like capitalism itself, this adultery and subterfuge has within it the seeds of its own destruction.

The action of The Promised Land runs on nervous energy and fear – fear of bankruptcy and ruin. It thrums with the rhythm of the unsafe looms whose white cotton cloths are sometimes spattered red with the blood of a worker whose arm or hair has got too close to the mechanisms, and whose young female operatives are coldly lusted over by the owners. The father of one young woman confronts a lascivious seducer, and they both fall into a giant turning wheel which spews up lumps of mangled flesh and a severed head; it is a crazy farce of horror.

The tempo is kept permanently at this hyperactive pace, and the sound design and re-dubbing is such that all the dialogue is at the same evenly unreal volume, like people jabbering or laughing or arguing in a dream. This is the kind of nonstop carnivalesque rush that 70s European cinema inherited, in slightly coarsened form, from Fellini, and it survived in Lina Wertmüller and Emir Kusturica.

And where will it all end? Not in poverty exactly; not material poverty at any rate. But we are finally to see the three plutocrats in the first stages of middle age at the beginning of the 20th century, fatter and more cynical and certainly richer, sitting in their well-appointed boardroom in formal dress, coldly contemplating firing on the mob of strikers who have just thrown a rock through their window. This handsome apartment looks very much like the czarist Winter Palace; and the factory itself – what does Wajda think that looks like, with its forbidding walls, ugly brick structures, high chimney and curlicued wrought iron gates with a little factory logo and initials? The satire and intrigue of The Promised Land is leading somewhere very disturbing.


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