The New Land

There's an argument to be made for the notion that The Emigrants and The New Land should be regarded as one giant film, especially when you consider that the second film begins mere moments after the first one ends. Even so, The New Land is at least partially unique from its predecessor in terms of both the kind of story it's telling and in the way its constructed. The Emigrants is a film about the dream of a new life in America; The New Land is a is a film about the reality of a new life in America. Both films are united by omnipresent hardship.

The film begins in 1850 – six years after the first scenes of The Emigrants. Karl Oskar (Max von Sydow, The Seventh Seal) and Kristina (Liv Ullmann, Persona) have three small children and have just selected a patch of fertile Minnesota land to live on. Their journey to America was an exhausting one, but there's no time for rest: winter is coming, and they must build a house before it arrives. Meanwhile, Robert (Eddie Axberg, A Guy and a Gal) has already begun thinking about taking yet another journey, and fantasizes about traveling to California to make his fortune. The grass may have looked greener in America, but there are rumors that the grass in California is made of gold.

As in the previous film, The New Land is largely comprised of simple daily challenges that have alarmingly enormous stakes. Being able to secure the money to purchase a cow could mean the difference between life or death for some of the children over the winter. Being able to scrounge up an extra few cents to buy that bag of seeds could mean the difference between a bountiful crop and a pitiful one. Without fail, these moments put knots in your stomach, because Troell has so consistently refused to back away from agonizing moments of tragedy. Every victory feels hard-won, and in those moments of happy relief, you realize just how invested you've grown in the lives of these characters.

The storytelling also grows bolder and more experimental in The New Land, particularly in the film's second half. While The Emigrants certainly offered some ambitious editing (skipping entire seasons in the blink of an eye), it largely offered a straightforward, linear narrative. The New Land generally moves forward chronologically, but also makes room for flashbacks, dreams and waking nightmares. Shortly after settling in, the characters begin to suffer a crippling fear of being attacked by Native Americans, leading them to experience violent fantasies. There are certain aspects of being American that they've picked up on very quickly.

The film's most visually striking and ambitious stretch arrives shortly after the intermission, as Robert returns from his trip to California and relives a series of difficult memories. For what seems like an eternity, the film eliminates dialogue from the proceedings almost entirely, sending us careening through Robert's tormented mind and using brash editing techniques to grab our attention (particularly striking given the gentle rhythms found elsewhere in the film). Axberg's performance also attains a tormented depth at this point, and seeing how persuasively he plays this material gives you a greater appreciation for the work he did in The Emigrants as an optimistic young dreamer.

In both films, Troell's cinematography foreshadows the sort of work Terrence Malick and his assorted collaborators would do later; allowing nature itself to serve as visual punctuation and to become an additional character in the film. The grass, the trees, the sea, the desert, the snow, the leaves and the wind get nearly as much attention as Karl Oskar and Kristina, and there's something fascinating in the way that Troell admires the overwhelming beauty of the mostly-untamed land while consistently acknowledging just how cruel and deadly it can be. As time marches on, the land proves more resilient than any of the creatures who inhabit it.

While the moments of horror don't arrive quite as frequently as they did in The Emigrants, they arguably have an even greater impact this time around. The most horrifying sequence in either film arrives late in The New Land, as an unfortunate governmental mistake leads to a ruthless act of vengeance. The sequence concludes with an image so unsettling that I still grow a little queasy just thinking about it. What awful consequences a broken promise can have: in mere seconds, an idyllic American paradise becomes a living hell. A similarly unsettling scene arrives later, as we bear witness to a mass hanging... a brief but potent reminder of how violently this country was “tamed.”

As the film marches on, Karl Oskar and Kristina grow wearier. Life wears them down a little more with each passing year, but somehow they manage to hang on, bearing witness to the endless suffering of their friends and family members. The makeup work done on both Von Sydow and Ullmann is subtly effective, but their performances do a large part of the work: how many other actors could have been equally convincing as young lovers and a resilient old married couple? By the time the film has concluded, you feel as if you've spent a lifetime with them, and not simply because these movies are so long.

Combined, the two films represent one of the most ambitious and emotionally overwhelming works of the 1970s. Watching them, I was filled with a sense of gratitude at how comparably comfortable my life has been. However, it also made me wonder if the comforts of the modern world have made it a little harder to appreciate just what an extraordinary gift life is. It stands as a tribute to the courage of the people who built this country, a realistic assessment of America's mythical reputation as a land of opportunity and as a sobering reminder of how many people were crushed as this nation continued to grow and take shape during the 19th century (and that's despite the fact that the horrors of the Civil War are only briefly acknowledged). The prospect of sitting through a six-and-a-half-hour drama about Swedish farmers may not sound like the most exciting thing in the world, but trust me when I say that The Emigrants and The New World offer an experience you'll never forget.

The New Land

Rating: ★★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time: 202 minutes
Release Year: 1972