Earlier this year we were proud to release Swedish director Jan Troell’s two-film epic, The Emigrants (1971) and The New Land (1972). The films, starring Liv Ullmann and Max von Sydow, are based on Swedish author Vilhelm Moberg’s four-part series of novels about the mid-nineteenth-century wave of emigration from Sweden to the United States. Now, over at Film Comment’s website, comes a wide-ranging interview by film critic and author Michael Sragow with Troell—who is eighty-four and now living in the small town of Smygehamn, in southern Sweden. Sragow refers to the Swedish filmmaker as an “outdoor poet, an expansive humanist, and an intuitive psychologist,” noting that “his ecstasy for the physical world merges with his love for his characters.”
Troell, who started out as a schoolteacher (his teaching career, he says, was cut short not long after a mishap in the chemistry lab resulted in “such a big bang that it was heard throughout the school”), ventured into filmmaking by creating documentaries for his students, and then began making 8 and 16 mm shorts, which he brought to film studios in Stockholm. Included among these was Svensk Filmindustri, where Ingmar Bergman was making his films, and it was there that Troell met producer Bengt Forslund, who went on to collaborate with him on his debut feature, Here Is Your Life, in 1966.
Initially, Troell had difficulties adjusting to his newly chosen profession—early in the production of Here Is Your Life, he says, he was paralyzed by “the pressure of the Ingmar Bergman myth of the director,” and was unhappy with his footage. But Forslund encouraged him not to give up. “Do the scene your way,” Troell remembers Forslund telling him, “with a handheld camera, no sound, don’t think about any dialogue, just shoot it.” Later, Troell experienced similar misgivings while working on The Emigrants, before finding a scene in Moberg’s books that convinced him he could make the film his own. Although that scene didn’t make it into the film, Troell describes it—in the terms of his earlier career as a chemistry teacher—as a catalyst, “the thing that causes a chemical reaction but doesn’t take part in it.”
As a bonus, the filmmaker also explains the origin of a famous scene in The New Land, in which Max von Sydow’s character, Karl Oskar, shelters his son from a blizzard by placing him within the still-warm carcass of his ox. The scene has been referenced in The Empire Strikes Back (when Han Solo keeps Luke Skywalker warm in the belly of a tauntaun carcass), and more recently in Alejandro González Iñarritu’s 2015 film The Revenant, which features Leonardo DiCaprio’s character crawling inside a horse carcass for warmth. “Initially it was Vilhelm Moberg who read about the ox when he was doing research in America,” Troell explains. “He had seen in an old magazine or newspaper a story about a farmer who saved his boy this way. So he’d taken it directly from that.”