Saturday, July 2, 2011

PROMISED LAND (Ziemia Obiecana, 1975)

Now that Andrzej Wajda's standing as a master of gore has been established (see post below), let's look at the film of which that astounding clip is part. Intriguingly, for a film from a communist country, Ziemia Obiecana, an adaptation of an 1899 novel, has three capitalists for its heroes -- or antiheroes. They're charismatic young men on the make, first introduced to us counting out paces in the woods as if preparing for a duel. It turns out that they're measuring out the tract of land on which they plan to build a textile mill in Russian-ruled Lodz. They're appealing from the start because they represent an admirable ethnic mix. Karol Borowiecki is a Pole, Moryc Welt a Jew, Max Baum a German. While they often have issues with each other, they stick together against all attempts to drive them apart by appeals to ethnic loyalty or individual greed. They have the confidence of youth on their side, along with opportunistic instincts.

The old guard ranges from Buchholtz, Borowiecki's employer and a Dickensian monster of meanness, to a clique of Jewish investors who'd give Mel Gibson the creeps on sight. By comparison, our trio seem progressive despite a certain indifference to the welfare of workers or the ethics of private correspondence. When an industrial accident leaves a worker without an arm and yards of cloth covered with blood, Borowiecki's only concern is to get everyone back to work as soon as possible. When his flirtation with the wife of another factory owner gets him access to a coded tip-off on revised tariff rates, he and his buddies take advantage of the inside information to make a killing in the cotton market. Despite all this, we're still tempted to root for the threesome because they seem different and better than their elders. When someone arranges for their new factory to be burnt down just after its festive opening, you expect them to persevere and rebuild. In an epilogue, however, Wajda tears down whatever illusions we may have had about his protagonists. "Years later," Lodz is in the grip of a strike as the working class finally takes an active role in the story. However repugnant Borowiecki, Welt and Baum find their elders, in the end they stand on the same side as their peers, the exploiters, and order their security force to fire on the workers.

The version of Promised Land that I saw is billed as a director's cut, whittled down by Wajda himself in 2000 from almost three hours (according to IMDB; a TV version is even longer) to 138 on DVD. Of course, I have no idea what I've missed, but Wajda would presumably have me believe that I've missed nothing. This article explains what he changed and why. The least I can say is, not knowing the extent to which Wajda had cut it, nothing seemed missing. But the longer original length reinforces my feeling that the film was intended as Poland's answer to the socially-conscious historical epics coming out of Italy, reminiscent of Luchino Visconti's The Leopard while anticipating Bernardo Bertolucci's 1900. Wajda clearly aspired to similar sweep and grandeur -- it shows in every aspect of the impressive production design, -- and to a certain decadence that's arguably more like Federico Fellini. The best sequence in Wajda's film is a night at an opera house during which our three protagonists are more fascinated by the dramas playing out in the balconies as word of some financial disaster spreads than by the excerpts from Swan Lake or an interminable comedy song featuring a fat woman on a swing. Brilliantly edited, but not without self-indulgent swing-cam shots of the audience, the sequence veers from Viscontian opulence to Fellinian grotesque, as does another perhaps more De Millean display of decadence, a masked ball featuring bare breasted courtesans and caged tigers. Mixed in with these luxuriantly satirical episodes, the moments of horrific mutilation I've mentioned may be meant to assert a kind of reality principle, as did scenes of brutality and gore in many other films in the "history of cruelty" genre I've retroactively recognized in the 1960s and 1970s.

It would be a long day at the movies, but Promised Land would make a good double-feature with 1900. They complement each other, Wajda focusing on urban capitalists while Bertolucci deals with rural landowners and peasantry and goes deeper into the 20th century than Wajda does. Both films are presumably Marxist, but that leaves us wondering why Wajda made a film that invites us to identify on some level with three ambitious factory builders rather than with the workers who appear mostly at the periphery. There's no class struggle in the picture until the very end, and even then we see it from the capitalists' point of view. One IMDB reviewer suggests that Wajda was making a subtly subversive point, so long as we see Borowiecki and his buddies as revolutionaries who eventually become reactionaries and in doing so see them as symbols, not of capital, but of the revolutionary Communist regime that had fired on its own people on multiple occasions. This seems right insofar as the three protagonists are ultimately revealed as false revolutionaries who despite their clear desire to shake things up are ultimately assimilated into the old order. But I think this point could be made in a Polish or East Bloc film without it being an implicit critique of Communist regimes. You could also see Borowiecki, Welt and Baum, as I was tempted to, as Polish counterparts of Kane, Bernstein and Leland, another ambitious trio out to shake up the system only to be absorbed by it. Given that many people seem to regard Ziemia Obiecana as the greatest of all Polish films, this analogy with Citizen Kane may be the most appropriate. I've seen all too few Polish films to say whether its admirers are right, but it certainly wouldn't be to Poland's shame if they were.

Here's a fascinating promotional clip featuring Wajda's three stars -- Daniel Obrychski, Wojciech Pszoniak and Andrzej Seweryn -- in modern dress (c. 1975) lip-synching in the middle of modern Lodz over clips from the film. It was uploaded to YouTube by atomek2.


Anonymous said...

You need to see a longer version of the film, there is more sex and violence. Especially the legendary sex scene of eating smoked fish. Many scenes had been cut at the request of the director's wife, so this is not a director's version, but the version of the director's wife.

Samuel Wilson said...

Based on what I say, I'd like to see the original version or the longer TV edition. Do you have any English-language references for your charge against Wajda's wife.

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry, I do not. The movie I saw on TV. His films are usually polite, his only movie in which the dominant sex and violence are the "Promised Land" and perhaps "Ashes".

His wife is conservative.

Anonymous said...

From your description of the film, Wajda's point may have been a sort of a reverse psychology. You identify with the neophyte capitalists to show how even the "progressive" or "idealistic" individuals are seduced by the greed/power that drive the capitalist machine.