The Promised Land (Bastarden) is a Slice of Denmark’s Best

There is hard edged cynicism inside the romantic sweep of Nikolaj Arcel’s Bastarden known in English as The Promised Land. Both titles are apt for the 18th Century set epic. The film wears the skin of a more traditional Western – one where a man fights for his dignity in an untamed land and finds himself in the hands of frontier justice metered out by a merciless moneyed landowner. Mads Mikkelsen plays Ludwig Kahlen, one of the bastards of the story (simply meaning he was born without paternal acknowledgment) a retired soldier living in near poverty on his military in his homeland, Denmark. The ‘Promised Land’ Kahlen aspires to is taming the Jutland heath (moorland) for farming and colonisation by the monarchy. In doing so he requests a noble title – something he would have owned if he were acknowledged by his aristocratic father.

Adapted from the novel Kaptajnen og Ann Barbara by Ida Jessen, Bastarden is less about the trials and travails of hardened but not heartless man battling the elements and a wealthy sadist as it is a question of why the battle is so ingrained in his consciousness that Captain Kahlen continually puts his humanity and need for family aside to continue fighting it. His foe is twofold, the degenerate Lord of the Manor, Frederik de Schinkel (Simon Bennebjerg) and his own need to be recognised by a dissolute and drunken monarch as an honourable man of Denmark.

After being essentially fobbed off by the Royal Treasury in 1755 who are aware that the King Frederick V is only interested in hedonism, Captain Kahlen is given permission to attempt to cultivate the Jutland heath. As it is self-financed on his small pension and the Treasury can pretend that Kahlen doesn’t exist if things go wrong, they agree to his terms of land and a title if he succeeds.

Arriving in Jutland Kahlen befriends a young pastor Anton Eklund (Gustav Lindh) and the piles afflicted pragmatist Trappaud (Jacob Lohmann). He also encounters the local Romanisael Tatere folk including the ‘darkling’ Anmai Mus (Melina Hagberg), a fast on her feet trickster child of unknown parentage. Because of Kahlen’s limited finances and interference by Schinkel he has trouble finding workers, so he takes in two indentured serfs Anna Barbara (Amanda Collin) and her husband Johannes Eriksen (Morten Hee Andersen) who fled Schinkel’s excessive cruelty.

Mads Mikkelsen imbues Kahlen with all his character’s contradictions. A man who is logical and precise, unafraid of superstition and driven by practicality, yet somehow still believes in a nobility and laws which have disadvantaged him since his birth. A man who can be callous but not deliberately cruel. A man for whom violence is simmering and endurance is self-effacing and self-serving. Kahlen is not an inherently heroic man; he simply stands in contrast to Schinkel’s rapacity and profligacy, a product of his debauched entitlement.  

In contrast stand Anna Barbara, Edel Helene (Kristine Kujath Thorp) who has been bartered to her repulsive cousin Schinkel as a bride because of her family’s debts, and the most despised of all, Anmai Mus. Each of these characters know what it is to be bought, sold, and traded. Except for Edel Helene who sees a successful and ennobled Kahlen as a method of escape from her predicament, the reality for Anna Barbara and Anmai Mus is that Kahlen’s obsession with taming the heath is not worth more death and deprivation.

Yet death and deprivation is the inevitable result as not only a punishing winter sets in and Schinkel begins to understand he is losing his grip on the moorlands which he believes belong to him. To be undone by a ‘flea ridden’ bastard is an affront Schinkel cannot stomach as it reveals his immaturity and impotency. Power and wealth are all the posturing pureblood has at his disposal as he is widely disliked by his social peers who find him gauche in his extremities and egotism. For those who must serve him, fear is what keeps them tethered. With property comes people in a kingdom where the law is made for, and wielded by, the rich and titled.

Nikolaj Arcel doesn’t skimp on spectacle in his film. The Jutland moorland and heath is captured in all its danger and barrenness by Rasmus Videbæk. There is bloodshed, murder, corruption, and wolves of the literal and human variety ready to feed on the settlers and the innocent. Arcel doesn’t forget that the audience is coming for a monumental saga where man triumphs over the natural and unnatural. However, the heart of the work is in the seeds that bloom as Anna Barbara, Anmai Mus, and Kahlen form a makeshift and precious family. A family who Kahlen fails to tend to as much as he does the crop he sent to an indifferent King.

“God is chaos. Life is chaos,” says Schinkel to Kahlen on their first official meeting. “War is chaos. But victory gives it order,” Kahlen replies. Kahlen’s victory is not what he expected when it comes. The visceral victory is not his but belongs to one who lost more, suffered more, and gives the audience greater catharsis than if it came specifically from the soldier’s hand.

“Things rarely work out the way we expect them to, Ludvig” says Trappaud. It took Kahlen twenty-five years to reach the rank of Captain in the German army, a place where his rapist father sent him. It took him eight years to finally become a Baron. King’s House was a home when inhabited by Anna Barbara and the fantastic Anmai Mus who works out who the good chappos and the bad chappos are as she weaves her way into the hearts that know how to open.

A romance, a critique of privilege and greed, a big sweeping drama with Mads Mikkelsen stoic, pained, selfish, loving, grizzled, and fierce. Bastarden is a story that almost seems to come from another time not just as a historical epic, but as low-budget (under nine million USD) saga that Hollywood would make fifteen years ago, but not now. Come for Mads Mikkelsen and Nikolaj Arcel’s second Oscar selected feature and stay for another brilliant slice of Denmark’s best.

Director: Nikolaj Arcel

Cast: Mads Mikkelsen, Amanda Collin, Simon Bennebjerg

Writers: Nikolaj Arcel, Anders Thomas Jensen (Based on the book by Ida Jessen)

Nadine Whitney

Nadine Whitney holds qualifications in cinema, literature, cultural studies, education and design. When not writing about film, art or books, she can be found napping and missing her cat.

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