It has been sixty years since the release of Andrzej Wajda’s first film, Generation (1955), and in that time he has directed over fifty more. 1975’s The Promised Land, which was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 42nd Academy Awards, is one of his very best. That’s no mean feat in a filmography brimming with social deconstruction and boasting riches like Ashes and Diamonds (1958) and Man of Marble (1977). Based on the novel of the same name by Nobel laureate Wladyslaw Reymont, Wajda’s drama paints an absorbing portrait of late 19th century Poland, caught in the vice-like grip of commercialism.
Like the original text, the film sets its gaze on an ebullient triumvirate of young industrialists in the manufacturing hornet’s nest that is the city of Lodz. The troika consists of a Polish nobleman, Karol (Daniel Olbrychski), German immigrant, Maks (Andrzej Seweryn), and Jewish businessman Moryc (Wojciech Pszoniak). With barely two pennies to rub together, they set about their plan to build a cotton factory and with their neatly weighted ethnic and social diversity, ongoing examination of race and class accompanies the trials and tribulations of their campaign. The Promised Land gives a bleak view of this tumultuous and vital period in the formation of modern Poland with its scathing presentation of the wealthy’s squalid excess and the worker’s excessive squalor. At its centre, Karol shows the ultimate demise of old-fashioned values, discarding his lineage as “mummified Polish nobility” in favour of hard cash.
“Once honesty ruled in Lodz, not millionaires,” reminisces Maks’ aged father, the owner of an ailing loom workshop that still utilises men over machines. Karol’s trajectory echoes this sentiment exactly. As his callousness increases throughout the narrative, he descends so far as to have his own Nero moment with all integrity lost. Karol doesn’t fiddle as Rome burns; rather, he gorges on rich food and another man’s wife with little regard for anyone else. A periphery brimming with intrigue – a Jewish conspiracy against the factory, opportunities for each man to betray his associates, suggestions of a prosperous marriage – all combines to make riveting viewing. As Wajda’s camera skims along the greyish-brown of Lodz’s streets, and glides through vulgar and empty mansions, the plight of the workers and moral corruption of the directors is writ large across this chapter of Polish history. He excellently accentuates the unrefined and rash money men ruling the roost and yet manages to keeps the trio’s tale gripping down to its inevitable, but no less chilling, conclusion.
Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson