Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Jan 30, 2024 6:55 am 
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The trials of Ludwig Kahlen

Those looking for an epic, uplifting story like the Swedish master Jan Troell's film of settlement in America The New Land, will be sorely disappointed by this grim Danish saga, set in the inhospitibale and empty Jutland heath in the mid-eighteenth century. But an IMDb citizen reviewer describes this film as "a period piece set in Europe with the look and feel of epic westerns," and that is something of what is to be found here. The great Danish star Mads Mikkelsen, whose grizzled, stony face no camera lens ever tires of, carries us through this fllm's depiction of the hero, Ludwig Kahlen's, long struggle with a drunken aristocratic villain known as Schinkel. He insists its "De Schinkel," but his aristocratic neighbors know otherwise, and his real origins are about as lowly as those of Kahlen, who eventually gets a "von" added to his name legitimately by the Danish King. He's stuck it out. He has raised potatoes, a crop that will grow most anywhere, on the Jutland plain, and survived untold hardships - but they will be told, in the over two hours run-time of this film.

Kahlen has gotten permission to take over some of the king's land on the Jutland plain - whose cold, flat expanse is the first thing we see in this handsomely lensed film. Permission from the Crown - except that, we learn eventually, the King is a drunk, whom he never sees and does not even know he's there, though he is pleased to have the seemoingly uninhabitable and unarable land inhabited and farmed in his royal name. In exchange Kahlen has requested, once he succeeds, to be given a royal title and an estate. Meanwhle, he calls the house he builds on the land "KIng's House." He comes with this request retired from the Danish army, in which he has earned the title of Captain painstakingly over many years. It's pointed out to him, as he knows - and accepts - that a noble recruit would have made the rank in just a few mohths. But he is a bastard - the real name of this film, Bastarden - the fruit of a nobleman's rough drunken sexual use of one of his serving maids.

The evil Schinkel, aka De Schinkel (Simon Bennebjerg), is guilty of the same drunken misbehavior, and one of his victims, Ann Barbara (Amanda Collin), becomes one of Kahlen's longtime ally on the farm. But his heart belongs to a high born women he meets at Schinke's, Edel Helene (Kristine Kujath Thorp), who has taken a shine to him from the start, and he to her. Another resident on the farm is a gypsy girl - they are called Taters here - named Anmai Mus (Hagberg Melina). She, Kahlen, and Ann Barbara become a kind of family, but it cannot last in this world of tribulations. Schinkel wants to get rid of Kahlen because his own land is near this godforsaken one, though we never learn if he has a farm or anything: he exists in the screenplay only to be a villain, and a sadist: we are forced to watch him have a captured runaway indentured servant slowly killed when Kahlen is also present, in the middle of the county ball. Nice social life they have.

The trouble for Kahlen is not just getting anything to grow in this harsh climate and land, but getting anyone to come and help him. He lures some Taters, the gypsy people, to work on the farm, but that is illegal, and he's forced to send them away. Finally about three dozen Germans are sent there, but their spokesman objects to the presence of the gypsy girl, Anmai Mus, whose dark skin he thinks will bring a curse on their enterprise, Kahlen can't send her away, but promises she won't be seen. That only works for a while. When Kahlen is successful, and has eighty bags of potatoes to show the Crown, that only upsets the other landowners, who join with Schinkel to attack him and his farm. Everything brings more trouble.

This is not really so much a story of farming so much as of dealing with hostile neighbors, and one positively evil one. But Kahlen as embodied in Mikkelsen is of course an impressive, regal figure, however beaten down, and a women near Schinkel whom he expects to marry him, Edel Helene (Kristine Kujath Thorp), who has taken a shine to him from the start, and he to her. But this is not a romance, not a tale of victory, but of endurance, nothing more. And those who like to see a villain get his will be satisfied. However while this is a handsome, well acted, and even austerely beautiful film, I found it a bit of a trial to watch. This is a world that brings to mind Samuel Johnnson's Rasselas, which says "Human life is every where a state in which much is to be endured, and little to be enjoyed." If there is no fun, and there isn't, there needs to be uplift, and there is little of that; so despite its good qualities, I can't give this film the highest marks.

Nikolaj Arcel has been winning awards for twenty years, and an earlier success, the 2012 The Royal Affair, also starred Mikkelsen.
The Promised Land/Bastarden, 127 mins., debuted at Venice Sept. 1, 2023, showing also at Telluride, Toronto, Calgary, and a half dozen US festivals; it shows at Göteborg Jan. 29, 2024. Metacritic rating: 76%.

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