The Emigrants/The New Land: Homelands

On Film / Essays — Feb 9, 2016
Emigrants/New Land essay image

A long film, like a long marriage, is a complex, fragile organism. Keeping the interest of an audience, or partner, takes persistence and a fair amount of imagination—and when it works, it seems like a miracle. Even considered individually, Jan Troell’s The Emigrants (1971) and The New Land (1972) are very long movies—both have running times of better than three hours. And there’s good reason to think of them as a single, six-and-a-half-hour epic film. Vilhelm Moberg, upon whose novels the movies are based, considered the four volumes of his Emigrants saga a single work; Troell treats the narrative that way too, the second film picking up exactly where the first one left off, as if he had simply moved on to the next scene. Like the novels (which were published between 1949 and 1959 and have over the years sold a couple of million copies in Sweden), Troell’s movies tell the story of a group of Swedes from rural Småland—most of them poor farmers, others religious dissidents—who make the journey to America in 1850 and settle there, for better or worse.

The Emigrants opens on an image that tells us basically everything we need to know about why these ordinary and mostly rather conservative country folk feel compelled to leave their home: a bleak close-up of a patch of farmland in which there seems to be more rock than soil. Soon after, a middle-aged farmer named Nils (Sven-Olof Bern) nearly kills himself trying to dislodge one of the bigger boulders, and Karl Oskar Nilsson (Max von Sydow), the son who takes over the management of the farm, has to carry on that backbreaking battle with the stony, ungiving land. The rocks are everywhere, jutting up from the earth and threatening to break Karl Oskar’s plow; he moves one, and then another, and another, and still there are more. His labors are endless, Sisyphean. And year after year, the land refuses to yield. His family is growing: Karl Oskar and his young wife, Kristina (Liv Ullmann), are as fertile as the soil is barren.

The pilgrims also include Kristina’s pious uncle Danjel (Allan Edwall), whose version of Christianity is considered heretical by the Lutheran powers that be, and his family and followers—among them the town whore, Ulrika (Monica Zetterlund). In some way, the prime mover of the expedition is Karl Oskar’s younger brother, Robert (Eddie Axberg), who reads books that have filled his head with dreams of American-style social equality, and of gold for the taking in the wild, wild West; he brings along a large, amiable, and somewhat simpleminded friend named Arvid (Pierre Lindstedt). Everyone from Småland who boards the ship for the long voyage to the New World does so because life in the Old World has become stifling, inhospitable: the law, the stern religion, and even the land itself have hemmed these people in, constricted their hopes and aspirations. They all need freer air to breathe, and they allow themselves to imagine a place, across the ocean, that puts fewer obstacles in their path.

Moberg, himself a son of Småland, was a patient, painstaking writer. He was for much of his career a newspaperman as well as a novelist, and brought a journalist’s passion for facts and details to his fiction—he liked to describe his Emigrants books as “documentary novels.” He takes the entire first volume of his saga to get his pilgrims to America’s shores. Troell, telling the story in two installments rather than Moberg’s four, takes us farther before asking us to leave his characters for the first time—by riverboat and overland all the way to Minnesota, where Karl Oskar stakes his claim for what will be his family’s new home and farm. Max von Sydow, with his great long-legged stride, tramping through the northern woods in search of just the right patch of earth to settle on is a mighty impressive sight, and this wonderful sequence brings The Emigrants to a stirring climax. (The corresponding scene in Moberg’s text, placed two-thirds of the way through the second volume, is much less memorable.) The film’s ending gives the narrative a satisfying shape, and helps dramatize the central irony of the travelers’ situation: in order to reach the wide-open spaces of Minnesota from their cramped, crabbed patches of land in Sweden, they must first endure the even narrower confinement of the vessels that convey them, huddling together belowdecks when storms hit. When they arrive in America, after many weeks at sea, their relief is palpable—and Troell, who’s been trapped in those close quarters with them, seems to appreciate the release too. In its last hour, The Emigrants becomes airier, more lyrical. Some burdens, for these people, are beginning to lift, and the film lets them enjoy it for a while, before their new lives reveal new rigors. They look, as if for the first time, at the world around them; Troell gives them cool green forests, serene rivers, glittering lakes, and birds in flight.

The huge undertaking of The Emigrants was just the third feature film Jan Troell had directed. Before his first, Here Is Your Life (1966), he had only made shorts and documentaries, and been the cinematographer on Bo Widerberg’s Barnvagnen (1963), but Here Is Your Life demonstrated that he had an extraordinary talent for telling intricate, wide-ranging stories in a manner both realistic and poetic. He would need all his skills for the filming of Moberg’s epic, and although he prefers to be his own cinematographer, he actually tried, he has said, to sit beside the camera for the first few weeks of shooting. He gave it up. “I have to go behind the camera,” he admitted. “That is where I feel at home.” He’s very clear about the reason: “I want to be able to improvise the movements of the camera. If I feel I want to pan to something else without informing anyone in advance, I want to be able to do that.” This is a risky method for large-scale films like The Emigrants and The New Land—or his later The Flight of the Eagle (1982), Hamsun (1996), and Everlasting Moments (2008)—but the documentary-like freedom of Troell’s shooting style gives his historical epics an unusual sense of intimacy; they’re alert, unstudied, dense with small revelations.

Troell acts as his own editor too, and the rhythms of his films are distinctive. Although The Emigrants and The New Land are episodic, with substantial gaps between events, they flow naturally, like a long conversation, speeding up for some passages and slowing down for others, but always moving toward a destination, a fixed point—a place, if not of repose, at least of greater clarity. (Troell also cowrote the screenplays, with producer Bengt Forslund.) At the end of The Emigrants, Karl Oskar and his family feel as if they have arrived somewhere, and that’s the way Troell wants an audience to feel when one of his films is over. In this case, though, the story isn’t really finished, because the end of the Nilssons’ journey to America is also the beginning of something; there’s always more work to be done for these hardworking people. In The New Land, Karl Oskar and Kristina try to build a new life for themselves on their rich piece of earth, and Robert and Arvid—who have come to resemble Lennie and George, the wanderers of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men—light out for the territories in search of gold. In the New World, the tight little community of Smålanders begins to scatter, as communities tend to do in America; this world is larger, but also lonelier.

With the characters dispersing, their stories no longer as connected to one another’s as they were, Troell’s editing rhythms become a bit more jagged and unpredictable. Although there’s more light, more space, and more action in The New Land, there’s also a more pervasive sense of danger—a disquiet at the edge of things, waiting and watching just out of sight, like the Native Americans whose lands the settlers have claimed for themselves. We can even detect at times hints of unease in the Nilssons’ sturdy, loving marriage. Kristina feels the loss of Sweden much more acutely than Karl Oskar does; she looks frightened and anxious a good deal of the time, even after years in Minnesota, and she refuses to learn English. Karl Oskar has taken root; he has no regrets, not a trace of nostalgia for the old country. When the Civil War breaks out, he tries (and, to Kristina’s relief, fails) to enlist in the Union army.

With The Emigrants and The New Land, Troell began what would prove to be a lifelong exploration of the ins and outs of marriage. Through Zandy’s Bride (1974), Hamsun, and Everlasting Moments, right up to his most recent film, The Last Sentence (2012), he has returned again and again to the problems and joys of couples who know each other too well. He’s remarkably sensitive to the small cracks and strains that develop in long relationships, and to the ways in which husbands and wives either try to repair them or (more frequently) ignore them and carry on. The Nilssons’ marriage is certainly the least contentious in Troell’s movies, but its dynamics are fascinating. Kristina, whom we first see in The Emigrants as a carefree girl on a swing, becomes, as the years roll by, less adventurous, tenser, while Karl Oskar—who is introduced as a young man worrying over the family finances—seems to come into his own in America, where his toil produces some visible reward. They’re not always on the same page emotionally. (Or perhaps they are, in different languages.) But they stay together.

And their commitment to each other chimes in some way with the larger themes of these movies. Subtly, Troell allows us to see that marriage itself is a kind of emigration: a matter of settling into another life, making the necessary accommodations, and gradually—over years, over decades—finding that you think of this person who is not you, or this place that is not the land of your birth, as your home. This idea is particularly important in The New Land, in which terrible things happen to several of the Swedish pilgrims; America gives and it takes away, no blessing unmixed. The long married know that feeling better than most. In von Sydow and Ullmann, who had played couples in three exceptionally intense Ingmar Bergman pictures in the late sixties, Troell had two great actors who had probably spent more time together, learning each other’s habits and quirks and tricks, than many husbands and wives do. The audience has no trouble believing that Karl Oskar and Kristina are each other’s homeland, in both the Old World and the New.

The films were, not surprisingly, well received in Sweden, and critics and audiences in the United States responded enthusiastically too. The Emigrants was nominated for best foreign-language film at the 1972 Academy Awards; and the following year, when The New Land was nominated for that award, The Emigrants—which had since opened in the U.S.—was nominated for best picture and three other awards. The movies were popular enough in the United States to spawn a network television series, The New Land, which aired (very briefly) in 1974. (In Sweden, a couple of former members of ABBA turned the story into a musical, called Kristina from Duvemåla, in the nineties.) Like Vilhelm Moberg, who lived in America for seven of the ten years it took to write the Emigrants series, Troell, von Sydow, and Ullmann all worked for a time in the United States. But none of them settled permanently. Troell’s experience was perhaps the unhappiest. On his first American film, an odd, contemplative western called Zandy’s Bride (in which he again directed Ullmann), and his next, the big-budget disaster film Hurricane (1979), he wasn’t permitted to be his own editor or his own cinematographer—which is to say, he couldn’t feel at home as an artist. So he returned to Europe, where his hands-on, highly personal approach to moviemaking didn’t seem unacceptably “foreign.” There are a lot of boulders in Hollywood that can make a mess of an honest workman’s plow.

The Emigrants and The New Land, however, remain as powerful and as beautiful as they were when they first landed on our shores over forty years ago. Like that era’s other great saga of the immigrant experience, The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather: Part II (1974), this epic is part of how we understand America now—Troell’s movies telling the story of those who settled not in the bustling, violent, darkly glamorous cities but in the vast middle of America, in the dailiness and hard slog of country life. For the taciturn rural toilers no less than for the fast-talking urban wise guys, it was tough to get here and, often, tougher yet to remain and thrive: the New World’s bounty came at a cost. The Emigrants and The New Land put down roots over forty years ago, and they have—miraculously—survived.