New Land: The Reality of the Dream

FROM “THE EMIGRANTS” DREAM CAME THE SETTLERS’ STRUGGLE TO SURVIVE…

 

The sequel to Jan Troell’s The Emigrants (1971) is often strung together with the first film in one piece, shown on U.S. television as The Emigrant Saga. Significantly shorter than the original films, that version is also dubbed. Better then to experience both movies separately, and in fact, The New Land is coherent enough to stand on its own for those who haven’t seen the first part. The full 204-min. running time offers an epic portrayal of what life looked like for the majority of those who emigrated to America. Here’s a hint: They did not start building a criminal empire.

The story begins immediately where The Emigrants left off. Karl Oskar Nilsson (Max von Sydow) chooses a place near Lake Chisago in Minnesota Territory (dubbed “Ki-Chi-Saga” by the locals), and builds a house for his family with help from other emigrants. Shortly afterwards, Robert and Arvid (Eddie Axberg, Pierre Lindstedt) leave for California to dig for gold, even though Karl Oskar considers their enterprise foolish. Over the years, the Nilssons create a life for themselves in the new land that becomes gradually better than it was in Sweden; Karl Oskar has no problems adapting, but Kristina (Liv Ullmann) finds it a lot more difficult. She misses the sights, sounds and flavors of Sweden and scorns her husband whenever he mixes a few English words into his Swedish. There is no church near Ki-Chi-Saga, which becomes another problem for Kristina. Then one day, Robert returns from California, without Arvid, and is initially reluctant to talk about what happened…

Fiercely realistic and beautiful
This is an even more powerful experience than The Emigrants, just as fiercely realistic and beautiful in many ways, but boasting a more compelling and satisfying story. We follow the Nilssons from their early days at Ki-Chi-Saga in the 1850s right up until the moment when Karl-Oskar draws his final breath in 1890. It’s a much greater time span than the few years depicted in The Emigrants, an era that addresses the Civil War and a local, bloody conflict with rebellious Indians (sequences that allow the filmmakers to criticize America’s handling of its native population in very stark ways indeed), but this is not primarily a film about major historical events. As always in Troell’s films, the devil is in the details. As cinematographer and director, he’s eager to capture the little things, such as birds migrating for winter, leaves rustling in the wind, dirty hands being put to use, the trinkets that show how the living standard of the Nilssons is slowly improving. Perhaps the filmmakers try to cram too much into this film, leaving a few plot threads dangling, but the slow pace and the long running time prevent the film from feeling too episodic. Rather, this type of storytelling becomes pieces that form a very rewarding portrait of the protagonists. Von Sydow and Ullmann deliver brilliant, heartfelt performances as two people who love each other but are very different; Kristina in particular is a highly relevant symbol of the kind of immigrant who is unable to reconcile fully with her new land, a problem that hasn’t changed in our days. The couple’s last scene together is very moving and evocative; home is truly where the heart is. Another engaging part of the film is Robert’s gold-digging trek, which is seen through flashbacks (with no dialogue, only very sparse music) and offers additional evidence of how tough life could be for the early settlers.

This isn’t The Godfather, Part II, although it does have its majestic moments. But the history of American immigrants is above all filled with Nilssons of all nationalities, not the Corleones or Tony Montanas that Hollywood favors.

The New Land 1972-Sweden. 204 min. Color. Produced by Bengt Forslund. Directed and photographed by Jan Troell. Screenplay: Jan Troell, Bengt Forslund. Novels: Vilhelm Moberg (“The Settlers”, “The Last Letter Home”). Cast: Max von Sydow (Karl Oskar Nilsson), Liv Ullmann (Kristina Nilsson), Eddie Axberg (Robert Nilsson), Pierre Lindstedt, Allan Edwall, Monica Zetterlund… Hans Alfredson, Per Oscarsson.

Trivia: Original title: Nybyggarna.

Golden Globe: Best Foreign Language Film.

Last word: “When I was editing, my close friend Georg Oddner watched a cut of [the desert scenes], and, while sitting at the edge of the table, started pounding with his fingers – he very often did that, because he was a jazz drummer. I was fascinated by how that pounding added something. I told him, ‘You have to do the music for those spots in Robert’s flashback dreams.’ We put him in a dubbing studio with a drum set and he just improvised while watching the film, and I did the final edit afterwards.” (Troell, Film Comment)

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