Monday, October 21, 2019

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #229 - The Emigrants / The New Land (1971/1972, dir. Jan Troell)

When these two 3-hour Swedish films opened in Denver in the early 1970’s I would have been about 14. I honestly can’t believe my parents thought it was a good idea to take me to six hours of subtitled historical drama, but it is even more surprising that I sat through it, and remembered it fondly. I was thrilled to see that Criterion released them together in one package, and, that after three decades I would be able to revisit this experience. I spent the better part of my day off with Swedish farmer Karl Oskar (Max Von Sydow) and his bride Kristina (Liv Ullman) as they try to succeed in their native Sweden, but failing that, emigrate to mid-1800’s America and help settle Minnesota.
The first movie The Emigrants finds Karl Oskar toiling on his Father’s farm working like a dog, barely making ends meet, and finding it almost impossible to feed his new and growing family. At the same time, his brother Robert and other relatives are finding the Swedish environment of conservativism and religious piety oppressive. They start talking and reading about North America and the promise of freedom and success in the United States. Braving the emotional and financial consequences, a group of them decide to leave their home and make the voyage to America. That’s a neat little synopsis of the first three hours, but it does nothing to convey the overwhelming beauty and power of this great movie. Filmed with loving attention to detail, director Jan Troell puts the dirt under your fingernails, makes you smell the bread baking, and puts the thought in your mind and belly that this will be the last bread of the winter because the harvest is bad. Troell’s movie is in a class by itself. It’s hard to think of another movie that so vividly takes the audience into the lives of simple people so effectively. There is little romanticizing of their plight, everything is shown with a matter-of-fact clarity which conveys both the pain and drudgery of their existence, but also offers a fleeting, bittersweet glimpse at a not so distant past free of technological intrusion and environmental annihilation. The scenes and one’s emotions fly from backbreaking toil to exhilarating natural beauty with the fluency of life itself. The cinematic achievement is profound. Like so few movies (Boyhood is one of the only others that comes to mind), The Emigrants and its sequel The New Land actually capture the huge artistic ambition of showing a life lived.
The lengths of these movies might seem gratuitous, but as they unfold, it becomes clear that this is the only way to portray such overwhelming scale. The sequence showing the boat journey from Sweden to New York is forty minutes of harrowing aquatic nightmare, and when it ends you feel a physical relief as the actors set foot on solid ground. Likewise, the final scenes of The Emigrants show Karl Oskar trekking through unsettled Minnesota looking for the perfect spot to settle. Without any dialogue, it is actually possible to lose yourself in the fantasy of discovering America. It is one of so many beautiful and emotional moments. If you love this country, and believe its inherent greatness is connected to its natural beauty and those who first settled it, this is a rare experience.
 Many social issues are also tackled in these movies. Especially in The New Land, timely themes of immigration, racism, sexuality, class warfare, dirty business and Native American rights are shown, again with the seemingly spontaneous intrusion of true life. Perhaps because everything is from the Swedish perspective, rather than the jingoism we often see in modern Hollywood, it is possible to reflect upon these issues from multiple perspectives. The story climaxes with twin tragedies. First, younger brother Robert heads west to participate in the gold rush. He is exposed to greed, disease, theft, and death, before returning to the disapproval of his own family. It is the Horatio Alger myth in reverse. Then comes the controversial telling of a massacre (part of the Dakota Wars) of many of the settlers by the Native Americans who originally inhabited the land the Swedes were settling. A series of horrifying scenes of violence, retribution and execution bring in to focus one of the more unsettling aspects of the founding of our country and the treatment of its first citizens. Again, it is the non-Hollywood perspective that lends these scenes such veracity and makes them so hard to ignore or forget.
The Emigrants and The New Land are incredibly important films to see at this particular moment in America’s history. The ambitions of these films are as big as America’s endless horizons, yet they focus on the small details of humanity we all share. The endless vistas of this new country tamed by the tiny voice yearning for home.

- Paul Epstein

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