[4 November 2006]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Since my obsession with Swedish film star Liv Ullmann has begun to, shall we say, blossom (or fester, depending on how you look at it) over the years, one film in her cannon has painfully eluded me: Jan Troell’s epic cinematic interpretation of Vilhelm Moberg’s novels, 1972’s The Emigrants (which has only been available to US audiences in a crappy dubbed video version or on laserdisc)
Happy days are here thanks to some anonymous seller on EBay, who happened to be unloading some strange, unauthorized version of the film, unedited, in its three hour-plus running time and complete with English subtitles rather than the English dubbing. I have truly found at least once facet of the Swedish film industry’s numerous Holy Grails!
Troell’s story beings in Smaaland, a rural community in southern Sweden, where the land has been farmed to its limits and prospects are dying out rapidly. Max Von Sydow’s Karl-Oscar has dreams of uprooting his large family to somewhere better, where the soil is good. Wife Kristina, played, of course, by Ullmann (who begins the film constantly pregnant, naive and deeply religious), is at first skeptical and then through a series of tragic events, decides a change is for the best. Joining them is Karl-Oscar’s brother Robert, who works as a farm hand for an abusive employer and his pal, Arvid. Kristina’s Uncle Danjel, a righteous man himself, his wife and his followers (including a bitchy former hooker with the proverbial heart of gold and her illegitimate child) soon decide to go with them as well.
The first part of the film, which details the brutal, infertile existence in Sweden is wrenching. The desperation, the hunger and the idea that only God can save them is depressing. When they decided to leave for America, I wanted to cheer. However, the decision was not without its consequences.
As the characters embark to what they believe will be a better life and world, the second half of the film takes off with a “can-do” spirit and optimism that is catchy despite the perilous journey that lay ahead for the poor, eager Swedes. They board a skiff bound for America and a treacherous, disease and famine-filled adventure begins. People drop from cholera and the plague. Food is contaminated. Oh, then comes the scurvy. It’s a bloody, barbaric trip to be sure. Several of the main characters come face to face with death. It’s amazing what people can survive and what they will actually endure to achieve what they desire – in this case, the freedom to farm on fertile land and the freedom to practice their religion unimpeded. You get the sense that this liberty is everything to them. The peril they put their families through is worth it though. It’s worth taking the chance to get to America. They have a purpose and will do everything and risk everything to fulfill it.
The third and final act of the film brings us to the US. Interestingly, part of this film was actually made here, shot on location in Wisconsin, Minnesota and in and around the Great Lakes. Once they get off the boat, the journey is still not complete. There are still trains to catch and more boats. When they finally reach the North, the viewer is given a sense that the Swedes have finally found a foothold toward their goal. Yet we also know that there is still much work that will have to be done.
The simplicity and straightforward storytelling makes the film seem very crisp and focused. I really got the feeling that this story was authentic, not embellished and cleaned-up. The characters fight with each other. They have some really ugly moments, but then they develop a wonderful sense of community and familiarity and there are some terrific, humane moments throughout. The photography of the film is just as direct: showing the natural elements of the journey (water, ice, earth, etc…) in their glory. The boat scenes show the water as being both menacing and gorgeous. The sets are quite minimal and this really highlights the acting and story.
Of course, the chemistry between Ullmann and Von Sydow is magical. Ullmann has that uncanny knack for building her characters from scratch. She begins as a sort of sheltered, fragile mother who isn’t strong enough to make it to the new world and she slowly weathers many terrible tragedies that make her stronger and wiser. She is supported wholeheartedly by her husband, giving the film a little romantic sheen.