'The Promised Land' is a western that follows a retired Danish officer in 1755
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
The new film "The Promised Land" may have the feel of a Western for many Americans - long, empty vistas, rocky soil, new arrivals struggling to make a living and a forbidding and often lawless place. But it's a story about a Danish officer, Ludvig Kahlen, who retires from service in the German Army, 1755 on a small pension, and gets a royal warrant to try to wrench a living out of the meager soil of the Jutland. He encounters small-time thieves, a robber baron, prejudices and love. "The Promised Land" stars Mads Mikkelsen and Amanda Collin and is directed by Nikolaj Arcel, who's also directed American films, including "The Dark Tower." Mr. Arcel joins us now from Copenhagen. Thanks so much for being with us.
NIKOLAJ ARCEL: Thank you for having me.
SIMON: I gather the title in Danish, "Bastarden," translates to "The Bastard." That tells us a lot about Ludvig Kahlen, doesn't it?
ARCEL: It does. Although, interestingly, in Danish, the bastard only means illegitimate son or illegitimate child. It actually doesn't mean anything sort of other negative than that.
SIMON: What does it say about Ludvig Kahlen, how he feels when he gets to the Jutland?
ARCEL: You know, I think what really is so interesting to me about this story is that the main character is somebody you don't - you don't like him very much in the beginning of the film. He's - of course, he's ambitious, and he's an entrepreneur. But you - he's not a very nice person. And I thought that was a very interesting - I've never done that before. I've never done a film about a sort of main character who's decidedly actually unlikable. Of course, then you slowly grow to love him, which is the whole point.
SIMON: You get mad at him in the early part of the film because he seems to exploit some people who come to work for him, doesn't he?
ARCEL: And not only that. He's putting on airs, and he's not very nice to anybody. He seems to be, like, a little bit full of himself and a little bit too driven towards becoming somebody important.
SIMON: What does he want to be? What does he see himself becoming in this forbidding landscape?
ARCEL: He wants to be a nobleman. That's basically the only thing you can be at the time. If you're not - if you're either a commoner or you're a royal - which is impossible to be because you have to be royal of blood, and he's not. But you can sort of build yourself up to be a nobleman if you, for some reason, are extremely lucky, marry into nobility or, let's say, please the king, do something that the king notices that he will then grant you a noble title for. And, of course, if you get that title, you get money. You can live tax-free. You get workers. You get an estate. You get everything that the sort of, quote, unquote, "today's 1-percenters" would get.
SIMON: And one night, somebody breaks in to rob Ludvig.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE PROMISED LAND")
MADS MIKKELSEN: (As Ludvig von Kahlen, non-English language spoken).
(SOUNDBITE OF ANIMAL CRY)
MELINA HAGBERG: (As Anmai Mus, non-English language spoken).
SIMON: Turns out to be a little girl. I think it's safe to say she changes his heart, doesn't she?
ARCEL: She does. She does. In the beginning, she's a nuisance to him, but she does open a path to his ice-cold heart, which is something that was - it felt quite personal to me, not that I have an ice-cold heart. But I had children a couple of years ago, and it certainly changed my perspective on life. And it changes everything for Ludvig to suddenly have to take care of somebody and somebody who loves him unconditionally, which is very difficult for him to understand in the beginning.
SIMON: I must say I did not know until seeing this film about the role of the Romani people in - can we call it the settling of the Jutland in Denmark?
ARCEL: You can. You can, certainly, because it is a very unknown chapter. And there were so few. The whole idea of the girl Anmai Mus, who comes into Ludvig's life, is that she's one of the only Romani people in the entire Denmark. And so everybody looks upon her as something completely alien and foreign. They don't understand. They think the color of her skin means that she knows witchcraft. So that's part of her story in this film - is that she's - I mean, she's very strong, and she certainly has a lot of happy moments in this film, but it must have been lonely.
SIMON: Tell us about the incredible ogre who he encounters, I think it's safe to say (laughter), the villainous De Schinkel, right? I mean, he seems to do the right thing, invites him for dinner. Welcome to the neighborhood.
ARCEL: And in another story, they could - they might have been able to be friends. If Ludvig had been more subservient and just trying to please the antagonist, I think maybe De Schinkel would have taken a liking to him. But the thing is Ludvig is too stubborn, and he wants things his way. And De Schinkel doesn't like that. And, of course, his big problem is that he has all the power. He has all the money. But nobody really loves him. Nobody likes him. So he's completely unloved. And that makes him dangerous.
SIMON: This film reunites you with Mads Mikkelsen. What does he bring to a role?
ARCEL: Everything. He's so - of course, not only is he a wonderful actor. I think he's extremely talented. But he's also - he's really your partner. You know, as a director, what you really want from an actor is somebody who comes in and and partners up with you, not just on - about his part but takes a kind of co-responsibility for the whole story because that's what your lead actor has to do. And I think any good lead actor worth his salt or her salt would tell you that they do this. So that's what Mads really does. He is always up for anything. He will even carry gear if we - if it's a busy day. He's a very grounded person. He's a very, very nice man to be around.
SIMON: You make films - direct films that - also in the United States, as we mentioned. What's the difference between working in American films and Danish films?
ARCEL: Well, there's a really profound difference, which is that in America, especially if you're working in - on a studio film, it's barely your own film. It's not really your vision, your artistic expression. It's about creating something that is meant to make a lot of money, that's meant to reach a large audience or please, you know, the studio executives, I'm sure it's different for every director, but in my experience, that one American film that I did felt like almost - I was a workman for hire.
SIMON: Does that want to make you work more or less in America?
ARCEL: Less. (Laughter) I would say less because the reason I make films is because I love telling stories. And I have to say I prefer that there's not a hundred people who have opinions on the work that I do.
SIMON: Nikolaj Arcel - his new film, "The Promised Land," is in theaters now. Thank you so much for being with us.
ARCEL: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF DAN ROMER'S "FROST ON THE HEATH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
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