THE PROMISED LAND (1975)


Andrzej Wajda’s adaptation of Wladyslaw Stanislaw Reymont’s novel about three young men, Karol (a Polish Catholic), Maks (a German Protestant) and Moryc (a Jew—which at that time would have defined both the character’s religion and nationality) who try to open a textile factor in Lodz at the turn of the 20th century; they begin by measuring out the footage by walking the boundaries, breaking out champagne and saying the most famous line from the movie: I have nothing, you have nothing, and he has nothing; that means together we have enough to start a factory. The novel is known for its vicious portrayal of the upper class as greedy, immoral capitalists who place little value on human life, just on what that life can produce in goods. The fact that the three young men are charming and full of life may make them easier to watch, but in the end, they are no less vicious than the businessmen they are so eager to replace (when someone is horribly killed during an accident and the worker’s arm is torn off, Karol’s main issue is how the textile material is ruined with so much blood on it; when his wife wants to set up a sort of hospital in his factory to help the sick and the injured, he suggests that it’s better to let them die). The film is a brutal and powerful dissection of these characters and the time they live in—the Industrial Revolution, when nobles can no longer survive on their titles and have to take work; when the middle class is becoming the upper class with their horrible taste in fashion and décor (Karol’s future wife traipses around town in hideous gowns of grotesque mismatching colors that would put Barbara Stanwyck’s Stella Dallas to shame); when money was the only factor that drove the society. Wajda’s direction mirrors the constant forward momentum of the machines; the camera never stops or if it does, then the characters never do. No one can sit still; everything is move, move, move or the zeitgeist might leave you behind (there’s a wonderful scene at a theater where hardly anyone watches the ballerinas do Swan Lake, but are constantly gossiping, flirting or spying on each other; making or deciding business deals; or killing one’s self, which is treated merely as a curiosity, if a business deal goes bad—just think if there were cell phones in those days). The three Donald Trumps in waiting are played by Daniel Olbrychski (Karol), Wojciech Pszoniak (Moryc) and Andrzej Seweryn (Maks) with an incredible intensity. In fact, the acting is like the direction, full of forward momentum, over the top and in your face. All three handle their parts brilliantly, though Pszoniak (who can always find the extra money the trio needs) seems to win the horse race by a comfortable margin. Their scheme is brought down in a Greek tragedy plot twist in which Karol schtups the mistress of a powerful businessman, gets her pregnant and the businessman takes it out on the new factory by having it burnt down. At first, the three are devastated, but then they repeat the opening mantra: I have nothing, you have nothing, and he has nothing; that means together we have enough to start a factory. This twist, which at first seems their undoing, enables Karol to break off with his long time fiancé and marry the neavue riche with the horrible taste in clothing. He and his friends once again have the money to build a factory and years later, they have fully taken on the crown of capitalists—by ordering the police to shoot down strikers in cold blood. The ending in the book is more uplifting: Karol meets his former fiancé and decides to use his money for social causes; in an interview, Wajda said he didn’t buy it, that Reymont obviously didn’t mean it, and felt his ending was more consistent with the story. The movie won Wajda the Golden Prize at the Moscow Film Festival—an award that surprised many. Wajda was not well supported by the Communist regime and considered too much of a rebel. The breathtaking production design and set decoration are by Tadeusz Kosarewicz, Maria Osiecka-Kuminek and Maciej Maria Putowski with equally breathtaking costumes by Danuta Kowner-Halatek and Barbara Ptak. Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language film of 1976.

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