The Promised Land: Eden in negative

“God isn’t civilized. God is chaos. Life is chaos.”

I look at The Promised Land as the story of the Garden of Eden in negative. Directed by Nikolaj Arcel from a script by Anders Thomas Jensen (who often brings a theological sensitivity to his stories), the film tells the story of a man who not in a lush garden but in a seemingly barren landscape that must be conquered. He also must face off evil, not in a tempting apple, but as a malevolent neighbor who believes he is the center of the universe. The Promised Land is Denmark’s official entry for Best Foreign Feature Film consideration.

Melina Hagberg and Mads Mikkelsen in THE PROMISED LAND, a Magnolia Pictures release. © Henrik Ohsten, Zentropa. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Captain Ludvig Kahlen (Mads Mikkelsen) is an army veteran who has left the poorhouse on a mission. The 18th century Danish king wants the heath in Jutland to be cultivated and settled. However, seemingly nothing will grow there. The king’s advisors know it is a fool’s errand but, by letting Kahlen go there, they can keep the king satisfied. His reward, if he can succeed, will be a noble title.

Kahlen reaches the land and searches and searches for someplace with even minimally useful soil. It is hard toil with very little reward. When in time he finds a small plot to begin, he can’t find workers, except for runaway serf Johannes Eriksen (Morton Hee Andersen) and his wife Ann Barbara (Amanda Collin). It is illegal for him to hire them, so he gets them cheaply. When a local Romani child, Anmai Mus (Melina Hagberg) is caught trying to steal from his supplies, he forces her to take him to her clan which he hires to help through the fall.

He attracts the attention of the local landowner, Frederik de Schinkle (Simon Bennebjerg). The “de” he added to sound more noble. He has to keep correcting people to use it. De Schinkle is the county judge and rules his world with brutality hidden behind an air of sophistication. He believes the heath belongs to him, not to the king. He offers to allow Kahlen to sharecrop the land, if he will agree that it belongs to de Shinkle. Kahlen refuses. De Schinkle’s fiancée sees Kahler as a possible escape from a marriage to a man who is so vile.

Amanda Collin in THE PROMISED LAND, a Magnolia Pictures release. © Henrik Ohsten, Zentropa. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

When de Shinkle’s men capture Johannes, de Shinkle tortures and kills him at a special festival. The Romani leave, knowing they will be persecuted as well, but Anmai Mus seeks to stay with Kahlen rather than face being sold. So Kahlen, Ann Barbara, and Anmai Mus find themselves evolving into a kind of family trying to survive in the bleak landscape and bleaker social realities.

God is not often explicitly referenced in the film, but is frequently sensed in the background through the presence of the local pastor (Gustav Lindh) who supports Kahlen in his efforts to bring settlers to the heath. Evil, however, is a constant presence in the person of de Schinkle. De Schinkle thinks he is a law unto himself. He will stop at nothing to keep Kahler from creating a settlement that is not his to control.

Part of what leads me to interpreting this film in the light of the Eden story is the contrast between life on the heath and life in de Schinkle’s manor. The heath is barren, save for native heather. The cinematography in these scenes shows a dark and empty world. The manor, on the other hand, is full of color and light. Yet it is even more empty than the little house inhabited by Kahler, Ann Barbara, and Anmai Mus. In Genesis, God puts Man into a Garden, but after the Fall expels him to a world of toil. Here, the world of toil is not so much a punishment as it is a way to find a new kind of Eden. Surely the one who toils is far closer to God than the one in the manor who lives off the toil of others and his own sense of importance.

Simon Bennebjerg in THE PROMISED LAND, a Magnolia Pictures release. © Henrik Ohsten, Zentropa. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

While Kahler is truly the hero of the story, he as also seriously flawed. His obsession with his work and the title that he hopes to achieve will lead him to make disastrous and heartbreaking choices. In time he will achieve all he hoped for, but it will cost him far more than he ever anticipated. He will, in fact, discover that the Eden he hoped for is a kind of hell.

The Promised Land is in general release.

Photos courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Leave a Reply