The Emigrants (1971) The New Land (1972) d. Jan Troell The Criterion Collection Spine: #796 & 797 Blu-ray Release Date: February 9, 2016 Screen captures below are taken from The Criterion Collection Blu-ray disc.
After years and years of relative unavailability, Jan Troell’s two-film epic about a mid-19th-century Swedish family’s painful journey to the United States is finally available for home video in the United States. I had never seen them before, but I can see now why The Emigrants and The New Land are esteemed and why this release is cause for celebration. These are tremendous feats of filmmaking in harsh conditions. Lee reviewed The Revenant yesterday (here), a film that is also brutal to watch and that showcases a great technical achievement. But like Lee, I found The Revenant as a whole to be flat and unremarkable. The Emigrants and The New Land, on the other hand, are filled with poetry and humanity.
Though two distinct films, I’m going to cover both The Emigrants and The New Land together in this review. The break between the two may as well be an intermission as The New Land continues to trace the course of this Swedish family as they try to settle in the United States, subverting, to an extent, the promise of arrival we witnessed as The Emigrants came to a close. The two films together run just over six and a half hours. Throughout, we follow this family and its individual members sustain life through work and hope. The shifting world around them is brought into beautiful historic detail, but it’s the inner life, portrayed and captured so well, that gives these films their wings. These characters are not reduced to mere symbol, though they may represent thousands of others who sacrificed so much in a quest for something greater. Troell makes sure we see them as individuals, hurt by the world around them but also engaged in small moments of beauty.
Of course, it helps immensely that Troell has two of the greatest actors of all time displaying that inner life: Max von Sydow and Liv Ullmann, who was nominated for an Oscar for her performance in The Emigrants (that film was also nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 1972 and then Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay in 1973).
I knew that I’d love these films from the first scene. We get some shots of nature with overlaid text that lets us know how many people are in this Swedish village. Yet even with these numbers, the focus remains on the individuals; Troell’s text proceeds to tell us how many hold certain positions, how many are prostitutes, etc. This approach — going from the collective whole down to the individual lives — reminded me of my favorite book I read last year: Ronald Blythe’s Akenfield: Portrait of an English Village (see my review here). The films and that book are artistic works that deal with a host of characters, giving a portrait of a community at a certain time, but each do this by honing in on the individual experiences in that community: the solitary moments of joy, the bitter moments of rivalry, the forgiveness in moments of peace, the exultation in moments of triumph, and the shock at life’s unfair vicissitudes.
Troell’s 1966 debut feature, Here Is Your Life, which I enjoyed getting to know upon its release last July (see my review here), is also a fairly long historical epic, one that traces the journey of a young boy in the early 20th century. Here Is Your Life was great, but The Emigrants and The New Land show that Troell’s ability to capture life as a filmmaker had grown by leaps and bounds. He learned to follow his instincts and capture his own moments of wonder. If a fly were on set, he just might move from the characters to that small creature sharing that moment, soon dead and part of the past but captured for a moment on film.
The films are, in fact, set up as a series of small moments. When The Emigrants begins, we meet the Nilsson family. They are farmers, and the father is getting old. A lifetime of injuries, a particularly unfortunate one late in life crushes his leg, has made it so we always wonder if he’ll just drift out of the film. He and his wife tell the son Karl Oskar (Max von Sydow) that he should probably find a wife. Soon, with no other introduction, Kristina (Liv Ullmann) is in the picture, a burst of life and light for us and for the family, though Karl Oskar’s mother is a bit too severe to appreciate her. We learn this when she spies Kristina swinging in the barn; Kristina notices and feels a sense of discomfort and perhaps shame at enjoying what is a harsh life.
We meet other character at similar moments, whether the moments are small or large. One large moment is a confrontation between the parish clergy and Kristina’s uncle Danjel (played by the always great Allan Edwall), who doesn’t accept the clergy’s authority and seeks to instruct his own parishioners. Before we know it, there are many children running around the farm as well; Kristina is worried constantly to the point that she feels she and Karl Oskar should avoid having sex. Obviously, that’s not happening, and these children bring joy and fear. Soon, several of these folks are ready to change their circumstances and seek their dreams in the United States that promises to be much better than it can possibly be — surely they know this, right?
We’ve been watching them go through trial after trial in Sweden, and we now see those trials continue as they cross the Atlantic Ocean. Honestly, this segment was so claustrophobic, so sickening, I had to turn it off for fear I myself would get seasick. The threat of death hangs over the head of every loved-one, much like it did in Sweden, but out here, with everyone moving onward, the sense of potential loss feels even greater. These are the people who are seeking a better life, after all. Death shouldn’t factor into that equation.
In The New Land, the trials continue, and everyone has the sense of being unsettled while trying to settle new ground. I don’t want to go into any detail about how this film proceeds, but it is a masterpiece. As time passes and he watches his family grow up around him in this world that is still strange to him, Karl Oskar is forced to confront his decision to move, detached and sitting at a strange distance from the lives moving around him.
These are important, beautiful, deep, moving films. I live in the Western United States, and my own ancestors were immigrants in the mid to late 1800s. I read their stories of settling in new towns, digging homes out of the earth, caring for sick and dying children, watching their loved ones get broken down by work, but also watching the beautiful world around them, and I love that these films explore the individual lives that made that transition, both what they gained and what they lost.
The Criterion Edition:
- Introduction by John Simon: Theater and film critic John Simon introduces the set in a 7:27-minute feature recorded by Criterion last October. Simon points out how astute Troell is at capturing the lives of the lower classes, something he did in these films as well as in his debut. Simon is obviously a big fan of Troell’s accomplishments here.
- To Paint with Pictures: A 56:56-minute 2005 documentary about the making of the two films. This features Jan Troell, Eddie Axberg, Liv Ullmann, composer Georg Oddner, and producer Bengt Forslund. I hadn’t looked to see what the source material for these films was, but this feature looks at the original author Vilhelm Moberg. Indeed, Moberg’s work had interested John Ford, but after seeing Here Is Your Life, Moberg wanted to work with Troell.
- Coming to America: Jan Troell on The Emigrants and The New Land: This is a fantastic 35:43-minute conversation between Peter Cowie and Jan Troell that talks about the films in general but really sings when the two talk about individual choices Troell made, due to artistic or budgetary concerns.
- Other than a trailer for each film, the disc ends with a 24:06-minute interview with Liv Ullmann. Ullmann seems to have enjoyed this whole experience, from getting the role, to working with Troel and von Sydow, to being nominated for an Oscar. I always like seeing these interviews when the actor or actress looks back with pride and happiness.
- The disc comes with an insert that features an essay by Terrence Rafferty.