Tuesday, 29 November 2016

The Promised Land (Ziemia Obiecana) 1975

Based on an 1897 novel by Wladyslaw Reymont, Andrzej Wajda's The Promised Land is an epic period drama that is reminiscent of Dickens or Zola and is a savagely incisive indictment of the rampant industrialisation of the 19th century and capitalist greed. 

Three friends, one Polish, one Jewish and one German (played by Daniel Olbrychski, Wojciech Pszoniak and Andrzej Seweryn respectively) hatch a plan to enter the textile industry in the expanding milltown of Lodz for their ruthless pursuit of fortune. Wajda's location work in Lodz - an area still largely unchanged from the days of the industrial boom - is stunning, lending the piece an impressive, weighty and expensive looking air that probably belies the budget they were actually working with. Working with a team of three cinematographers (Witold Sobocinski, Edward Klosinski and Waclow Dybowski) Lodz itself becomes a character within the film in its own right; the imposing smoking chimney stacks and the smoking ruins of factories burnt by their bankrupt proprietors for the insurance, the worker's shantytowns and their unrelenting poverty, is all captured through a wide-angle, hand-held camerawork that places the viewer into a realistic, near documentarian record of a thunderous metropolis, scored by the driving motif of Wojciech Kilar's score. 

The performances are excessive and some of the set pieces uniquely graphic. The Promised Land offers a visceral depiction of the harshness and horrors of industrialisation and the unfeeling nature of big business as best evinced by bloody and gruesome scenes of human flesh and limbs being ripped apart by machinery in workplace accidents. Morality is a commodity revered far less than materials and profit and, as such, it is easy to see why Wajda's anti-capitalist film found much favour with the Communist regime that ruled in his native Poland at the time. This also explains why the performances and Wajda's direction revel in the grotesqueness of the characters greed and ambition, with one scene set on a train featuring Olbrychski and his voluptuous mistress (played by Kalina Jedrusik) sating themselves on both a rich banquet and their bodies, reminiscent of Ken Russell whilst another, which sees Pszoniak, exhausted from gazumping a former ally in business, break the fourth wall by leering and gesturing at the camera, remains as shocking and surprising as it is sly and ugly. 

By nailing its colours so firmly to the mast of anti-capitalism, Wajda rewrote the original novel's somewhat positive ending for his adaptation, to close instead on a bleak coda set some years on which sees our central trio give the command to the local militia to shoot upon their striking workforce. This powerful conclusion enhanced his reputation with a Soviet establishment who had previously viewed his output with some suspicion and would go on to do so again before their rule came to an end.

What remains however is the fact that a tale which features the opportunistic greed and triumph of a trio who have nothing but their names, reputation and have no scruples in regards to undertaking acts of industrial espionage or duplicity continues to be deeply relevant to this very day. It may be 163 minutes in length, but I for one found the running time more or less flew by, so absorbing was the tale.

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