Film

The American Story in 6.5 Hours: Criterion Restores Jan Troell's Emigration Epic

Stephen Mayne
The Emigrants (Utvandrarna (1971)

Jan Troell's masterful double header looks like two films and plays like one as it takes the Nilsson family from 19th century Sweden to life in the new world.


The New Land

Director: Jan Troell
Distributor: Criterion
Release date: 2016-02-09

It takes a piece of paper to turn Karl Oskar Nilsson into Charles O. Nelson. Just one piece of paper to discard the old world Swede and welcome a new citizen into the melting pot of America. It’s this mid-19th century journey of Karl Oskar and the extended Nilsson clan that plays out over six and a half hours in The Emigrants and The New Land, brought back to life in restored versions by a Criterion Collection release. (As with so many of their releases, it includes a wealth of extras from interviews with Jan Troell and Liv Ullmann to a documentary on the making of the films).

Technically separate entities, Jan Troell’s migratory epic, itself drawn from a series of four novels by celebrated Swedish writer Vilhelm Moberg, is really one long film, and it's best viewed as such. While that certainly demands patience and a clear schedule, it rewards with one of the finest cinematic depictions of the immigrant experience.

Conceptually, the idea of packing up a struggling life for more prosperous climes is a simple one. People have been doing it for as long as there have been people. In practice, it’s a whole lot more complicated as this richly textured family saga proves. In the struggles they face on a daily basis trying to eke out a living on stony Swedish soil, it’s not hard to see why the Nilsson’s might want to leave. No matter how hard Karl Oskar (Max von Sydow) and his young wife Kristina (Liv Ullmann) work, a rock will always appear to break the plow, or in the case of his father, crush a working-man’s leg.

It’s not only the misery of life on land not fit to support it. Karl Oskar’s teenage brother Robert (Eddie Axberg), a dreamer who first hits upon the idea of America from his reading, is contracted to a local farmer who beats him mercilessly for slacking off. One beating leaves him with a damaged ear that rings and bleeds perpetually.

Refusing to return to work proves only a partial fix; Robert remains at the mercy of the local Sheriff should he ever get caught in the parish. As if that’s not enough reason to leave, Kristina’s pious uncle Danjel (Allan Edwall) faces religious persecution for preaching his purer-than-puritan views to a motley crew including town prostitute Ulrika (Monica Zetterlund).

These are the people that set out for America, determined to find something better and new, even if they don’t know exactly what that might be. That they’ll suffer along the way is inevitable -- something has to sustain such a long running time -- but it’s also very commonplace. Both films eschew brash melodrama and sharp shocks. Stretched across so much time, even the most momentous of events simmer back into the ebb and flow of life. Problems are there to be overcome or not, joy is beautiful yet short-lived, grief is both painful and inevitable. The Nilsson’s battle nothing that wasn’t faced by a thousand other settlers, but it’s still a story unique to them, a combination of events that makes them who they are.

There’s plenty of action over the six and a half hours; it’s just not rushed. It takes half of The Emigrantsfor the Nilsson's to leave their old lives in the Swedish province of Småland. From there a cramped boat journey drags endlessly for all on-board, and then a confused trudge across even more confusing territory awaits as they attempt to get to Minnesota, a land where the grass might hopefully be greener. It’s here the first film leaves us and the second starts. However, The New Land, picking up without delay, doesn’t rob The Emigrants' closing scene of its power, as Karl Oskar stakes out his new home.

The New Land (Nybyggarna (1972)

By now the emigrants are immigrants, homesteaders in a world that doesn’t speak their language. Where the first film plays out in one long, linear narrative with time skipping past to move the plot to the next key point, the second occasionally plays with timelines, doubling back on itself to show what happened to individuals after they leave one another to walk different roads.

Karl Oskar is the films' constant, shot through with bloody-minded determination. At first, sick of life in Sweden and sold on stories of fertile fields, the travellers bind themselves around him to make the trip, sharing friendship and irritation alike. Once there, the party breaks up, Karl Oskar creating his farming dreams, Robert leaving with old friend Arvid (Pierre Lindstedt) for the gold of California, and even Ulrika branching off, swapping religions for her new pastor husband. As land and opportunities grow bigger, it becomes inevitable that people break away.

A sense of historical perspective, of time passing and people changing, is the beating heart of the adventure. Disasters are dealt with frequently, history blunders in, and life moves on. Kristina is often pregnant, bringing new life into the new world, while at the other end of the scale, death is never far and never given undue treatment. When someone passes they’re mourned, but life goes on. The loss of one culture and the discovery of another mimics this natural cycle.

The Swedes meet fellow Swedes and keep their own language, even building a Swedish church. They stick together on the surface but become something new underneath. Not everyone can handle it, and not everyone wants to. Kristina pines for her old life, refusing to learn English, while her husband seems at home on his productive plot, going as far as to sign up to fight in the Civil War. That he’s rejected is a bitter blow to him but a relief to his wife.

Old threats also come in new forms. Danger and hardship still lurk, sometimes familiar, sometimes in exotic new shapes. Robert remains a dreamer, his health haunting him wherever he goes. Arvid will always be his loyal follower. Even religious persecution follows, as Kristina comes under pressure to break ties with Ulrika for herself breaking ties with their particular strand of Christianity.

Staying the same and changing beyond recognition is a tough task for an actor, one to which von Sydow and Ullmann rise, comfortable with each other having worked together on multiple Bergman films. Von Sydow’s long face and permanent air of struggle fit with Karl Oskar. Striding around his property with that languorous gait, he’s resigned to hardship and set on countering it. Ullmann complements him, both more playful and more embattled. Their scenes together form the core of the epic but not its stand-out moments.

These fall to Axberg’s Robert, an adventurous intellectual (at least by peasant standards) who refuses to let another person master him. There’s a restless energy to his performance, whether in the form of his idealised future, one he spells out to Arvid when speaking of California, or through his own suffering. He’s tormented by physical ailments and the weight of past sins, especially the mistreatment of a cat; the poor creature’s plaintive cries come back in his darkest moments.

In the second film, his trek to the goldfields, told almost silently with little more than percussion, is gripping and horrific. His return offers the best scene in either film as Karl Oskar tears into him for supposed lies, flinging worthless money back in his face. The confused hurt as he realises all he’s gone through is for naught is heartbreaking.

The same can be said for much of Troell’s diptych. He makes frequent use of close-ups, offering cramped frames to show the constricted world of the Nilsson’s. Images of nature (all captured by Troell serving as his own cinematographer) and sparing use of sound draw out just what it is they’re up against. Karl Oskar needs the land to support them, engaging in a gallant battle to wrestle it into something that might serve. Shots of luscious green trees and feathery woodland show what could be. Striking snow engulfed scenery proves how hard it is in practice. Life and death exist very close together at all times as weather that saves them one moment can kill them the next.

Troell weaves in numerous themes throughout, several calling back to previous set-ups. Racism, class, religion, health and even gender politics feature in some form. None of them overwhelm. Over one million Swedes moved to America. They left for simple reasons, and they faced impossible decisions. Their stories, like the Nilsson’s, sound similar yet remain unique in their rich depths.

The Emigrants and The New Land capture the heart of the American story and make it universal. Life is full of set-backs and calamities, moments of unbridled happiness, and the forming and breaking of deep bonds. People are born and people die; in-between they strive for a better life. Rarely has that striving been captured as completely as this.

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