In the early 1970s, Swedish director Jan Troell created two of the most grandiose, expensive Swedish movies ever made: The Emigrants and The New Land. Each film was based on two installments of Vilhelm Moberg's four-part historical fiction series The Emigrants, which is widely considered as one of the great Swedish literary achievements of the 20th Century. Over the course of nearly seven hours, the films collectively detail the story of a Swedish family's attempt to leave their home country and start a new life in America. Despite the fact that very little English is spoken over the course of the two films, they nonetheless rank as a pair of the most thoroughly American foreign films ever made. The American dream is built into the very DNA of this sweeping tale, and they stand tall alongside the first two Godfather films as one of cinema's greatest, most ambitious immigration stories.
The Emigrants covers the actual immigration process, and is evenly split into two halves: the first covering the struggles of daily life in Sweden, and the second covering the long, difficult journey to America. It's an “intimate epic” of the first order, telling a lengthy story of enormous scope through a series of private, personal moments.
Our tale begins in the humble Lludjer Parish of Smaland, Sweden circa 1844. Aging farmer Nils Nilsson (Sven-Olof Bern) has just suffered a serious injury which ensures that he will no longer be physically capable of running the family farm. So, his oldest son Karl Oskar (Max Von Sydow, The Seventh Seal) is tasked with taking on this sizable responsibility. “You'll need a good woman,” Nils observes. Here, Troell delivers the first of many brilliantly condensed pieces of storytelling in three quick shots: a shot of the attractive Kristina (Liv Ullmann, Cries and Whispers) sitting on a swing, a shot of Karl Oskar kissing Kristina's neck and a shot of Kristina smiling and caressing her swollen belly. This is a film that pays extraordinary attention to detail and that devotes itself to capturing the smallest nuances of daily life, but it doesn't waste time.
After a few years (and the arrival of a couple of children), Karl Oskar begins to grow frustrated with the limitations he faces. The land he has to work with is tough, there's not enough vegetation to support a horse (which would make so many of his daily tasks so much easier) and there will never be any real chance of prosperity. In secret, he begins thinking of traveling to America in search of a better future. As personal setbacks and tragedies begin to pile up, his resolve to act on his dream grows stronger. He's not the only one: Karl Oskar's younger brother Robert (Eddie Axberg, A Guy and a Gal), who works on a nearby farm and is frequently beaten by his tyrannical employer, has spoken to his friend Arvid (a sweetly naïve Pierre Lindstelt, Ormen) about running away and taking a ship to America. Additionally, Kristina's uncle Danjel (Allan Edwall, Fanny and Alexander) – a local minister who subscribes to a less-than-conventional brand of Christianity – has contemplated leaving in order to escape the constant legal and social persecution he faces for his beliefs.
By the time Karl Oskar and Kristina are ready to begin their journey, they have assembled a small army of travel companions. Most of them don't have any particularly grandiose delusions about what life in America is like – they haven't bought into the “streets paved with gold” fables – but they do believe firmly that they are heading to a land of opportunity, where anyone who works hard will have a chance to succeed. However, they'll have to survive the actual journey before they can even begin to measure this alleged land of milk and honey against their expectations.
I'm not sure that any other film has so memorably captured the sheer struggle of surviving in the 19th century. Life is and always has been a fragile thing, but the environments the Nilssons find themselves in seem particularly susceptible to tragedy. The combination of taxing physical labor on a daily basis, a lack of proper sanitation, a lack of access to proper medical care and plain old bad luck ensures that some form of intense suffering has become a regular thing for these people (not to mention the more ordinary hardships brought on by a lack of birth control – Kristina always seems to get pregnant at the most inconvenient moment). The intensity of this amplifies once Karl Oskar and his family board the overcrowded ship, which would be nearly unlivable even without the abundance of diseases being passed around. The mundane horrors of traveling by sea are documented in grueling detail, but even so, Troell keeps things in perspective: a few fleeting-but-poignant shots of shackled slaves remind us that life can be even more hellish than anything the Nilssons have experienced.
The large ensemble cast is exceptional across the board, though Von Sydow and Ullman more or less anchor the film with their sturdy, tender performances. Von Sydow is so well-cast as a man who has come to a weary acceptance of the fact that his life will always be filled with a certain portion of suffering. He never seems to grant himself the luxury of self-pity or depression, though you can occasionally see the quiet despair in his eyes. In the wake of each new tragedy, he offers comforting words to his wife, sighs heavily and then presses on. Ullman's character tends to wear her emotions on her sleeve more readily, though she also maintains a certain measure of that Swedish stoicism. The two actors develop a persuasively authentic relationship over the course of the film, bickering on occasion but always recognizing how desperately they need each other.
The Emigrants avoids sentimentality at every turn... sometimes so vigorously that we begin to feel nervous every time some semblance of peace or contentment starts to seep into the picture. Even so, beneath all of the heartache and hardship, there is a sincere belief in some version of the American dream. No, America is not the paradise they heard rumors of. Yes, many of the struggles in this new world will be comparable to their struggles back in the old country. And yet, this new land offers something that was non-existent before: a sense of hope. The film's conclusion offers a rare, well-earned moment of pure, unadulterated pleasure, as Karl Oskar drifts off beneath the shade of a tall Minnesota tree and dreams of what might be. This should be required viewing for any American who has ever taken such peace for granted.
Rating: ★★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time: 192 minutes
Release Year: 1971