'You're a Machine, just like everyone else'
A little while ago, when I was talking up Pandaemonium, the industrial revolution film spectacular, someone recommended I see Andrzej Wajda's 4-hour 1975 film The Promised Land as the nearest equivalent to a filmic representation of the modern world's primal scene - the mass-production of cotton, along with the people who produce and own it and the processes behind it. Well, by courtesy of the invaluable Ms Pyzik I have now seen The Promised Land, and it fulfils practically every one of Pandaemonium's recommendations save for the CGI. The birth of industrial capitalism (in the Polish city of Łódź, at the Tsarist Empire's industrial edge) is not the creation of innovative entrepreneurs marshalling armies of grateful peasants to their new machines - it's an organised chaos, a horror story, and Wajda shoots it with the giddy sweeps and queasy angles of the genre. The general view of the new world is exemplified in the opening sequences, with their montages of smoke-belching chimneys and percussive, metal-on-metal marching music, creating a sense of terrible anticipation.
In the early scenes, the machines - shot with a frankly Dibnahesque fervour - are practically autonomous, rapacious creatures, which literally consume and spit out both those who are tithed to them and, in one scene, those who own them (Evan should be informed that this marks a rare example of explicitly anticapitalist splatter). The workforce, as it always was in Cottonopolis, is female, and Łódź as Promised Land becomes especially satanic as the factory owners round up the pretty factory girls for a circus-like orgy, lit with an infernal red glow - exploitation here exists on multiple levels, linguistic (this is a polyglot film, depicting a world of Russian and Jewish capital, German machines and Polish aristocrats desperate to buy into the dizzyingly profitable new world) and sexual as much as economic; and brief pastoral interludes show woodland streams running red with iron ore. In The Promised Land the capitalists are in every sense the protagonists, and except for a proletariat ex machina ending, they remain the focus, with the workers, the redbrick mills, the clattering, spindly machines and stock market crashes a backdrop. The 'hero' is a droll, charismatic and brutally unromantic aspiring industrialist, who moves through a series of opulent drawing rooms and parties, attempting to raise the capital for his cotton mill.
But with reference to the hypothetical Pandaemonium, it's still notable how rare (and here, localised) Wajda's unflinching take on the industrial revolution actually is. Perhaps it's a matter of the availability of the machines. Wajda is fully aware that at this distance they become a spectacle, and it's incredible to see, filmed in 1975, the entire apparatus of a cotton mill seemingly functioning, the overwhelming scale, noise and complexity, the mingled terror and boredom - but also the question of political/historical angle. I talked to someone about the film who pointed out that because of the (far from pleasant) conditions of the time and place it was made, the industrialists could be depicted as cynical and inhuman, and the process of mechanisation one in which (as one of them snaps, upon sacking someone) 'you're a machine, just like everyone else!' - now, Niall Ferguson or a local equivalent would be on the advisory board and they'd all be loveable buccaneers. The Promised Land, as its title and ending implies, is double-edged, but it depicts the most important event in human history as something both terrifying and irreversible - as it would be, if not necessarily in the same places. So here's what's happening to one of the factories were it was filmed.