The Emigrants: The Hands That Built America

A NEW LAND… A NEW HOPE… A NEW DREAM.

 

There was apparently a time when John Ford expressed an interest in turning Vilhelm Moberg’s epic story of Swedish emigrants into a movie. The author long resisted the idea of making a film. Then he saw Here’s Your Life (1966), director Jan Troell’s feature film debut, and suddenly decided that this is the right man to transfer his material to the big screen. It turned out to be a massive project that had to be divided into two films. In the end, international critics were more impressed than their Swedish contemporaries and The Emigrants ended up getting several Oscar nominations and two Golden Globe wins.

This first part tells the story of how a group of dirt-poor farmers came to the decision to leave their country and what happened when they finally reached America. In 1840s Småland, a large province in Sweden, we’re introduced to Karl Oskar Nilsson (Max von Sydow). When his father is incapacitated, Karl Oskar takes over the small family lot and marries a local girl, Kristina (Liv Ullmann). His brother, Robert (Eddie Axberg), starts working for a landowner who regularly beats and berates him, but at least he finds a friend in Arvid (Pierre Lindstedt), another poor soul who has no choice but to work for the mean-spirited man. Times are hard; crops fail for several years and people are starving. Eventually, America is discussed as an option; Robert has been dreaming about this place of milk and honey for a long time and a group of evangelicals starts viewing the new land as an escape from the oppressive Swedish authorities. Karl Oskar, Kristina and their children join Robert, Arvid and the evangelicals for a dangerous journey across the Atlantic…

Some of the visuals are striking tableaux
Considering the fact that this film only portrays the first half of the story, it is a testament to everyone involved that it works so well. Many will object to Troell’s slow pace, but the director wants us to really get to know these characters. It is an opportunity to see how difficult life was in Sweden 150 years ago; a hopelessly undemocratic society, completely reliant on its agriculture. The director also photographed the film and some of his visuals are striking tableaux that certainly capture the essence of the story, such as the last image of Karl Oskar’s parents as their sons depart. The details are important clues that tell us just how miserable this life was, but Troell is also careful to emphasize the beauty of nature and the passing of seasons; it’s both a comfort and a stark reality. Credibility is one of the film’s major assets and that is also true for the grim sea journey and the scenes in America (although some of the Minnesota locations are actually shot in Sweden, but they are carefully selected). The rise of evangelicalism is portrayed with a sense of humor, and its optimism is coupled with the emigrants’ simplistic expectations of what life in America looks like. Allan Edwall is excellent as the stubborn, fundamentalist layman preacher who defies the church and he’s matched by Monica Zetterlund in a truly astounding performance as the whore who’s been born again and won’t tolerate any snide remarks about her past. Von Sydow and Ullmann embody Karl Oskar and Kristina to perfection, and Axberg (who also worked on the film as a sound technician!) conveys both the childishness and conviction of his character to great effect.

As the far right keeps winning votes throughout Europe, The Emigrants is a valid reminder of a time when Europeans had to leave their homes and turn up at America’s doorstep as immigrants, hat in hand. Times do change.

The Emigrants 1971-Sweden. 191 min. Color. Produced by Bengt Forslund. Directed and photographed by Jan Troell. Screenplay: Bengt Forslund, Jan Troell. Novels: Vilhelm Moberg (“The Emigrants”, “Unto a Good Land”). Cast: Max von Sydow (Karl Oskar Nilsson), Liv Ullmann (Kristina Nilsson), Eddie Axberg (Robert Nilsson), Pierre Lindstedt, Allan Edwall, Monica Zetterlund… Hans Alfredson.

Trivia: Original title: Utvandrarna. Ullmann’s daughter Linn plays one of the children. Later turned into a musical, “Kristina”. Followed by The New Land (1972).

Golden Globes: Best Actress (Ullmann), Foreign Language Film.

Last word: “I guess that [Moberg] liked the natural feeling and the way the actors come alive. I’ll tell you who was very important for those two films – the production designer, Per Lundgren [P.A. Lundgren], who had worked for Ingmar Bergman on several of his films [including ‘The Seventh Seal’ and ‘The Magician’]. He grew up as a farmhand, so he knew every aspect of the kind of life these people led. He instructed von Sydow on how the farmers really worked, and, thanks to him, everything was thoroughly detailed.” (Troell, Film Comment)

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