Kino immer anders

The Promised Land, also known by King’s Land or by its Danish title, Bastarden, is a historical drama directed by Nikolaj Arcel. It follows the generally true but heavily dramatized story of the veteran Ludvig Kahlen portrayed by the internationally beloved actor Mads Mikkelsen.

Kahlen was a retired officer from Denmark who served in the German army. Upon his return to Denmark in 1755 following his service, he obtained permission from the Royal Court of Denmark to build a farm on and attempt cultivation of the Jutish moor. The Jutish moor had harsh conditions for agriculture and many unsuccessful attempts at cultivating it had already been made. Nonetheless, its cultivation was a long-held ambition of the king, Frederick V. (Historical note outside the ambit of the movie: large-scale cultivation of the Jutish moorland was achieved in the subsequent century with the formation and success of Hedeselskabet.) The movie follows Kahlen’s destitute struggle to grow potatoes on the plot of land he was allotted by the king while he faced violent opposition from Frederich Schinkel, a rapacious local magistrate who viewed the agricultural ambitions of Kahlen as a threat to his regional power.

The movie is in many ways reminiscent of A Royal Affair, considered by many to be the best work of Nikolaj Arcel, with its retelling of historical events intertwined with personal drama. In both movies, the protagonist is facing forces that are far more powerful than himself. It is an exercise in frustrating the viewer who would like to see virtue prevail but is instead presented with the gritty reality of history. However, while A Royal Affair follows the expedient politics of the court, The Promised Land is a less ambiguous tale of the Good against the Bad. In The Promised Land, the Bad, namely Schinkel (or as he insists, de Schinkel), is almost comically evil. I consider this underwritten villain to be a weak point of the movie, which has moments where it feels like a sequence of unsubstantial demonstrations that «this person is bad» and «this person is good» barely exploring the involved motives or psychology.

The screenplay of The Promised Land is written by its director in collaboration with Anders Thomas Jensen, whose work I have long admired. While I would not have been able to guess this authorship simply from watching the movie, his influence is retroactively apparent. Jensen’s humorous approach shines through a few times in the movie, which has moments worthy of laughter.

Overall, The Promised Land is an enjoyable movie with beautiful cinematography, an intriguing story, and many heart-felt moments. The story of Ludvig Kahlen was not widely known until the publication of the 2020 book The Captain and Ann Barbara by Ida Jessen, which also serves as the source material for the movie, and it is a very riveting piece of Danish history, well-deserving of its cinematization.

Max Vistrup

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