Andrzej Wajda’s The Promised Land, based on the 1898 novel by Władysław Reymont, takes place at the peak of the industrial revolution and proceeds to vilify the crude beginnings of capitalism. Introduced into this fierce satire are three young friends, a Pole, a Jew and a German who pool their money together to build a factory in the flourishing Polish city of Lodz, a fiercely competitive centre of textiles construction. Friends Karol Borowiecki (Daniel Olbrychski), Max Baum (Andrzej Seweryn) and Moritz Welt (Wojciech Pszoniak) play second fiddle during the 1st hour, during which Wadja focuses in on the shocking identity of the city. This is an hour spent depicting the ruling class as a collective whom cannibalise their friends, ostentatiously smother the city’s culture and are arrogantly obsessed with the accumulation of wealth. So unruly is this obsession a select few readily dehumanise those beneath them with a routine of extreme victimization and violence the lengths of which draw parallels to slavery.
Land of Promise hosts some surprising violence that you wouldn’t expect from something this Dickensian in construction and character. The first instance sees a worker’s arm severed by machinery, spraying blood everywhere ‘ruining good product’, a spontaneous and grizzly scene. The second is equally violent but doesn’t keep in key with the intent of the film. Two men are fighting over the inappropriate treatment of a young factory girl; one party is the Father and the other a higher-up of the factory hierarchy concerning the management’s inappropriate treatment of his young daughter. A conflict that results in the two men fighting to the ends whereby they are both splattered in meaty chunks across the floor after getting too close to an industrial mill. Period drama and bloodshed to this degree are not a common sight, yet without it a a layer of this uncompromising beatdown of capitalism would be lost.
After that first hour has established order, the film proceeds to return its attention to the central trio and their factory. While that first hour is wasteful it provides a social stratum into which the three men belong. Just like the prime players use their staff like tools to beat, manipulate and abuse so too do Karol, Max and Moritz. There is no moral centre to the Land of Promise, no character to sympathise with and no lightness of heart. Wadja is not concerned with any such frivolity; this is cinema of fierce determination. Specifically the production design, the scale of the film personifies capitalism with a gothic otherworldliness.
The Promised Land talks about the promised land of capitalism with the same brutal touch as one would expect in a biopic dedicated to history’s most despicable. Andrzej Wajda’s The Promised Land is a tough film, a point exacerbated by its nigh on 3 hour run time. A film which runs to such excessive ends has to earn its length, and while the film has much to say there are scenes that add next to nothing. Depicting Lodz’s black heart does not require 179 minutes, 30 minutes could easily be stripped away and there’d be no real difference. As overly long as (this 2000 cut of) the Promised Land is it’s still a piece of landmark cinema. Extras are limited to a long-form interview with the film’s director with an eloquent and masterly curated booklet detailing the films importance in both Polish and Cinema at large. Whether the film is a success is a personal matter, of course, but to overlook its unflinchingly nihilistic butting of heads with capitalism would be to overlook something really rather special.