Nothing Grows on the Heath

in 47th Göteborg International Film Festival

by Eirik Bull

The year is 1755. An impoverished veteran — a captain from the German wars — arrives at the court of the Danish king to seek his favor. His singular goal, his purpose in life now that the fighting is over, is to claim a piece of land on the heaths of Jylland to tame and colonize in the name of the king. It is an area infamous for its barrenness and for being rife with desperate, murderous outlaws. He will call his farm Kongens Hus (translates to The King’s House).

“They say nothing grows on the Heath.” But Captain Ludvig Kahlen harbors a secret: potatoes from Germany, a root vegetable remarkably adept at flourishing in even the most barren soils. So, the king’s officials send him to the Heath, fully expecting him to meet his end through the harsh elements, starvation, or on the blades and guns of outlaws.

“Nothing grows on the Heath”, they say. Unless, of course, you count the mounting piles of corpses of desperate men and glory seekers like Kahlen.

Kahlen is granted permission to colonize the Heath by any means necessary. Fat nobles snicker and laugh behind his back as he rides out, but Kahlen is proud and stubborn—a combination that often spells doom for men like him.

So begins the Danish historical drama The Promised Land [Bastarden]. Directed by Nikolaj Arcel, the film stars the indomitable and versatile Mads Mikkelsen as Kahlen. The two have collaborated before on A Royal Affair [En kongelig affære], which went on to be nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. The chemistry between actor and director is fully on display here, and although The Promised Land boasts many great actors and terrific performances, its massive weight lies squarely on Mikkelsen’s shoulders.

But let’s face it, though. Mikkelsen is arguably Denmark’s most well-known export besides LEGO. He has starred in just about every type of film and franchise, from Star Wars, Marvel, James Bond, Harry Potter, and Indiana Jones, to smaller, more intimate Nordic productions such as the fantastic Another Round [Druk] and Adam’s Apples [Adams Epler].

In The Promised Land, Kahlen is opposed by the wicked noble Frederick de Shinkel (played by Simon Benneberg). Although the conflict between them is interesting and often intense — a case of pride vs. determination — Benneberg’s performance often veers dangerously close to the cliché of the mustache-twirling bad guy from lesser films.

But the main conflict in The Promised Land is Kahlen’s struggle against the elements, the land, and himself — more specifically, his pride. For when starvation goes from “if” to “when”, and survival is in doubt, pride is gradually set aside, and Kahlen lets other people — who he would see as lesser in his old life — become his new family in this harsh land.

The little Swedish-speaking, dark-skinned, and foul-mouthed Tater girl, Anmai Mus (played by the absurdly charming Melina Hagberg), brings fear and superstition wherever she goes because of her skin color. She also brings a slight, but much-needed layer of humor into this otherwise dark and dramatic tale. Together with one of de Shinkel’s former indentured servants, Ann Barbara (played by Amanda Collin), they make the best of this new life in the harsh elements of the Heath.

But nothing grows on the Heath, except for death, misery, and potatoes. Kahlen and his newfound family must adapt to this life of hardship. And maybe, if it had been a different type of film, the protagonist would overcome it all. But in The Promised Land, survival is in doubt from the start, making their situation, and their story, which is based on a true Danish tale, so much more believable.

The story in The Promised Land is yet another proof that Danish film has what it takes to make world-class cinema rival the best. There is a sense of quiet desperation in this historical epic, a rhythm of struggle and survival. It is also brutal; The Promised Land is a film not meant for the faint of heart, and there is enough blood, violence, and heartbreak to fill its two-hour and seven-minute run time.

The Promised Land is one of Mads Mikkelsen’s career highlights, and he, and the film itself, deserves all the praise and every accolade coming to it.

Eirik Bull