This Andrzej Wajda film is an adaptation of a novel by the Nobel Prize-winning author Władysław Stanisław Reymont (1867 – 1925). The original Polish cinema release was nearly three hours long with a four hour version for television. This was restored in Poland in 2011 and was shown at the Hyde Park Picture House in Leeds as part of the Martin Scorsese presentation of classic Polish films currently touring in the UK. I’m surprised at how few cinemas are showing these films so I’m grateful to get the chance to see some of them at the Hyde Park. My knowledge of Polish history is not as good as it should be and I had to check out Wikipedia to learn a few important things about the subject matter of The Promised Land. I wish some of the reviewers elsewhere had done the same and then they wouldn’t have made some of the misleading statements that have possibly damaged Wajda’s reputation after his work on the film. The novel’s title refers to the city of Łódź which after 1815, when it was made part of the Russian ‘Kingdom of Poland’, developed as an industrial city and attracted immigrants from all over Europe. Łódź grew as a textile centre and in the latter half of the nineteenth century was sometimes known as the ‘Manchester of Poland’ as it was cotton mills that powered its prosperity. The enormous influx of workers for the mills created an unusual population mix in which the local Polish population was matched by large numbers of Germans, many of whom were Jewish. From these two groups came many of the mill-owners and the bankers who supported them during the rapid growth (and financial downturns) of the period. The film’s narrative focuses on three young men. Karol is the son of an aristocratic Polish family in decline. He is employed as the Chief Engineer/factory manager of a mill owned by a despotic German. Max is German and the son of a mill owner who is still operating a handloom mill in the 1880s. He is not as ruthless as the other owners and his business is doomed because of his honourable stance. Moryc is a Jewish ‘middleman’ who operates in the futures market (cotton comes into the region via Hamburg and Trieste). Together the three “have nothing – the perfect place to start” and they set out to find money and to develop a new factory using every trick that they can think of. This includes sex, espionage and deception. Given its subject matter and literary source there is an assumption perhaps that this will be something like the literary adaptions of British or French cinema but the vitality of the film made me think more of 1970s/80s Hollywood. Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate (1980) shares some of the sense of unbridled capitalist excess. Others have suggested Bertolucci’s 1900 (1976). There is a long sequence in the opera house that reminded me of Visconti’s Senso (1954). I was amazed by the sheer energy of the film and the way in which the narrative raced along. I’m usually very adept at reading subtitles but for the first half hour I felt I was running to catch up. Wajda used three cinematographers and certainly gave them plenty to do. The camera moves swiftly, often from a low angle and using wide angle lenses so that the characters appear to be crowding around the camera and the audience is immersed in the hustle and bustle. There is also a busy orchestral score and sumptuous production design – I’m assuming that the mills we see are those still standing in Łódź (although the textile business has now largely disappeared). I’m not sure how to describe the film. It is certainly a melodrama but it is also a satire. In a strange way it echoes some of the scenes in Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, although the scenes in the pleasure gardens are rather more explicit than 19th century British literature was able to suggest. Much of the time the satire is buried in the detailed plotting but Wajda exaggerates some scenes to make them grotesque, including two explicit scenes of accidents in the mills. At the end of the film when the ‘education’ of the three principals in the ways of industrial capitalism is complete, Wajda ‘flash’ cuts scenes of worker’s resistance with the celebrations of the mill-owners and the critique of capitalist exploitation is explicit. The Promised Land is a major global film but it was criticised, especially in the US for being anti-capitalist – as if Wajda was somehow ‘toadying’ to the Russians. Others have pointed out that the film appeared as Polish worker’s resistance was building towards the birth of Solidarity. The film was also criticised for being anti-semitic. I don’t think this charge stands as the narrative critiques the behaviour of the young men and the mill owners whether they are Polish, Protestant German or German Jews. There is a Region 2 DVD of The Promised Land from Second Run and a Polish Blu-ray with EST. In the YouTube clip below is a scene (virtually without dialogue) in which we see Karol’s aged father and his fiancée arriving in the city to live close to the new factory being built by the central trio. The music here seems to be influenced by the kind of score used by Ennio Morricone in Once Upon a Time in the West.
Nominated for the Palme d’or and Argentina’s Oscar entry as well as receiving many other nominations and awards globally, Wild Tales has had an extensive release in the UK. Does it live up to this star billing? Did I laugh? Does the film have anything to say? Well, ‘perhaps’, ‘yes’ and yes, but . . . This is what is sometimes described as an ‘anthology’ or ‘portmanteau’ film. There are several different variations of this form. In this case there are six tales by the same director. I’m not sure that they are all ‘wild’. They do all involve forms of violence, some much bloodier than others. There is also a loose theme of ‘getting even’. It’s inevitable that with six films some will work better than others. I think I’d score this as 4 out of 6 with the first two the weakest.
In some of the stories the ‘getting even’ is directly related to social class distinctions and it’s always good to see the ‘little person’ get one over the bourgeoisie. But here that doesn’t always happen and a couple of the stories are driven by a relentless logic in which individuals are gradually worn down. In the end, the only thing that links all of the films is the sense of Argentinian society as being riven by all kinds of anti-social behaviour or clear injustices. I suspect that there were some nuances I didn’t get and that for Argentinian audiences the tales are more clearly linked together than I realised.
Some of the events depicted have a delicious black humour, others are more tragic. The film does, I think, invite audiences to indulge in assumptions about national characteristics. Male characters are arrogant and macho, some women are beautiful and haughty. And their opposites seem to be there to create the conflict – so the unattractive woman defeats the powerful man etc. The one star I recognised was the almost ubiquitous Ricardo Darin who appears as the ‘little man’ brought low by bureaucracy. But he’s an explosive expert . . . The tale that worked the best for me concerned a hit and run driver. This is in some ways a universal tale of wealth and corruption with a shock ending. I won’t spoil the enjoyment of any of the other tales but the film has been lucky/unlucky that the first tale relates directly to a recent news story and some cinemas have warned customers who might have found the link distasteful.
I think that my reluctance to embrace the film as completely as others have done is down to my general lack of interest in short narratives over longer ones. There are several other portmanteau films discussed on this blog. 7 Days in Havana is a less consistent film than Wild Tales but it does offer short films in different styles by different directors and in the end I personally found that more interesting. On the other hand, Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow offers three different stories by the same director which together say something about a particular society. The writer-director of Wild Tales, Damián Szifrón, does a good job in presenting the narratives but I didn’t notice anything particularly different in terms of style between the six separate stories (other than their generic roots). In some ways his film appears more like Hollywood anthology films than the European tradition of portmanteau films.
I did enjoy Wild Tales and I would recommend it as a film from one of the most vibrant film industries. My main concern is why it was so highly promoted where other foreign language films of similar quality are often restricted to a limited distribution. Violence and comedy are deemed to be saleable as a combination I guess – and the film is co-produced by the Almodóvars, Augustín and Pedro. Almodóvar is still a name that means something to UK audiences.
The media is full is of the withdrawal of this recently completed film by a major Hollywood corporation. It is an undesirable development. However, a few caveats are in order.
The accusations against North Korea are less compelling than official spokespeople suggest. Internet experts (there was one on Radio 4 yesterday) make the point that the evidence is tricky and difficult to pin down.And the complaints about ‘freedom of expression’ are somewhat hypocritical.
President Obama’s claim to end the boycott of Cuba provides one parallel – as Cuban cinema was one victim of this over the years. Moreover Hollywood is always happy to block films that do not fit with its interests. This Film is not yet rated (USA, 2006) provides a compelling case study of the operation of the Motion Picture Association of America’s rating system. This system regularly blocks access or restricts audiences for films that do not fit its values (though these are not actually available to the public).
In the UK the British Board of Film Classification operates a similar policy of restriction. Judging by the comments that accompany a certificate their major obsession is protecting us from the use of colloquial language – a protection from which Ken Loach’s films have suffered.
Sony Pictures commenting on the withdrawal of The Interview explained that this was due to pressure from exhibitors. A nice reversal of the norm, as it is usually the distributors pressurising exhibitors. You have probably had a similar experience to me at a multiplex on some occasion – the premier release occupying the major auditorium but with a smaller audience than in some of the minor theatres.
From its earliest days the cinema industry has been dominated by major firms largely sited in advanced capitalist economies. And they have consistently denied screen space to competitors, alternatives and especially films that deny their interests. It would be interesting to know if any major Hollywood studio has had a pitch for a tale about CIA plots against Fidel Castro – and what response they gave.
This was my big disappointment at the festival. It wasn’t that the film wasn’t great but that a beautiful 35mm film print turned up from the Dutch Film Museum sans English subtitles. The Hyde Park staff didn’t have time to check the print before the screening so all they could do after the first few minutes was to apologise and carry on for those brave souls (like me) who wanted at least to watch the film. This is one of those things that can happen at festivals with so many films to project from different formats and a constant stream of prints coming in and going out. I don’t blame the cinema. Fortunately, when I got home after the screening I was able to find almost the entire plot spelled out in detail in the ‘Low Countries’ book in the Wallflower Press 24 Frames series (2004).
The film was included in a festival strand dedicated to the ‘European origins’ of ‘Hollywood Greats’ – a slightly spurious title from my point of view since some the directors in question made European films before and after Hollywood exile that were as good as their American films. This was certainly true of Max Ophüls who was born into a Jewish family in Saarbrücken close to the German border with France. He was very successful as a young theatre director in Vienna and then moved into German-speaking cinema in 1929. His early films included the classic Viennese melodrama Liebelei (1933) after which he fled from the Nazis initially to Paris and most of his films up to 1940 were made in France apart from one in Italy and this film in the Netherlands. After four films in Hollywood (three of which were certainly very good) he returned to make four masterpieces in France before an early death aged 54.
Ophüls was most associated with romance melodramas but this film is primarily a form of social satire about the damage money can do to both a society and individuals/families. The protagonist is a relatively lowly bank clerk/messenger who one day loses a large sum of his employers’ money in transit – partly because he stops to talk to his brother-in-law (the process by which the money is lost is revealed at the end of the story). The clerk and his daughter are hounded out of their home and disgraced but then miraculously re-instated in a scam that sees the clerk installed as the magnate of a house-building company. At first he revels in his new wealth (and the daughter finds romance) but gradually he begins to suffer remorse and then nightmares. These finally drive him to confess his part in the scam and he is imprisoned – only to be released when the original money he lost is re-discovered.
Komedie om Geld offers almost a primer on the film styles of the early 1930s. Reported to be the most expensive Dutch film of its period (though costing less than German features), it wasn’t appreciated by the local audience (possibly too ‘German’ in its satirical gaze?). Given some leeway, Ophüls seems to have spent the money on elaborate studio sets and camerawork courtesy of Eugen Schüfftan, already a veteran of German Expressionism who would go on to work with Marcel Carne and others in France after his stints with Ophüls. Three different visual styles/elements combine in the satire. The ‘domestic scenes’ feature the kind of realism that would become better known in Renoir’s films of the period (though Schüfftan had worked on People on Sunday the 1930 film which showed the lives of ordinary Berliners). Ophüls’ depiction of the business world used the studio sets with deep focus – at least one shot reminded me of Citizen Kane. I confess that I did find it difficult to concentrate. I find an unfamiliar language is often as sleep-inducing as silence if there are no subtitles/intertitles. Therefore I didn’t really notice the length of shots or the use of tracking shots which would later became an Ophüls trademark. I did note however that the film displays many of the tropes of German expressionist cinema and especially in the nightmare sequence. In the 24 Frames book there is an interview with the Belgian filmmaker Harry Kümel who argues that the giant Ufa studio invested heavily in Dutch cinema. I’m not sure whether or not Komedie om Geld benefited from this. But what was clear to me was the use of the ‘MC’ (see the image at the head of the post) who introduces the different elements of the story and who presumably comments on the characters. A similar figure will appear in La ronde (France 1950) and Lola Montès (France 1955).
I’d like to see this again with English subs. There are various websites offering on-line viewing. I’m not sure of the legitimacy of these. There is also a Dutch DVD which is listed as having English subs so I may pursue that.