The Emigrants (1971)

Dir. Jan Troell. Starring Max von Sydow, Liv Ullmann, Eddie Axberg

(This review is a bit more awkward than the average movie review I do, because The Emigrants is not really its own film any more than Fellowship of the Ring is its own film. The New Land, released the year after The Emigrants, is a continuation of the story begun here with identical cast and crew. My review of The New Land is here.)

In the late ’60s and throughout the ’70s, when American film peaked for the foreseeable future, there was a common current among directors trying to set a tone in their films: don’t cast stars, who will distract from the film, but cast normal-looking folks who will fill the role well. The stars distract from the movie itself. People already go to the movies knowing that the film is a simulacrum of real life; heck, most of them count on it. Giving the audience people to work with who look, more or less, like them makes the illusion more realistic. And so Gene Hackman and Jack Nicholson became bankable leading men.

There’s certainly truth in that conventional wisdom; for example, Brad Pitt is maybe the most difficult actor in the world to cast at this point because he is Brad Pitt first, Canadian abolitionist or sworn-off Wall Street broker thirty-seventh. But every rule exists to be broken, and in The Emigrants that conventional wisdom is shattered. By my reckoning, Max von Sydow and Liv Ullmann are behind only Greta Garbo and Ingrid Bergman when we talk about Scandinavian film icons. They fill up the screen for the better part of The Emigrants, and that’s saying something: this movie is better than three hours. How does a director creating a realistic epic work around his instantly recognizable stars to maintain the realism?

The Emigrants is the kind of movie that people wanted to make and were ready to see in 1971: honest, straightforward, emotional without exploitation. It is devoid of glitz (outside of its cast, which again, counterintuitively, works to perfection). It is a film about simple people, shot with knowing austerity on sets which match our expectations of antebellum Minnesota or a Swedish farm at all months of the year. The people wear light brown or black; they are surrounded by lush greens, white snow, ultramarine ocean, sands which match their hair and vests and scarves. Occasional details gives the cast away as actors – how many Swedes in the mid-1800s had the ’60s fashionable haircut that Eddie Axberg was sporting? – but on the whole they fit the bill, even von Sydow and Ullmann. He plays Karl Oskar, a Swedish farmer who is almost too proud to live. More often than not he puts his head down and tries to extract as many boulders from his property as possible, or makes to pull a harvest together despite adversarial weather. He is stubborn, does not ask for advice and thus is not impelled to take any, and is not much given to subtlety. On the face of it, he sounds like a jerk, but for whatever his flaws are, they are balanced with strengths. He is loyal to his family, from his useless younger brother, Robert (Axberg) to his crippled father. He is totally truthful, without any ability or interest in deception. And he loves his wife, almost to a fault; despite the inability of the family to make ends meet in Sweden, there are more little blonde children in The Emigrants than you can shake a stick at, and short of his first child, Anna (who dies by hot porridge – it’s one of the weirder deaths in film history), they are largely indistinguishable from one another.

Kristina is defined by her deep faith in God. When Karl Oskar shows he has a touch of blasphemy in him, Kristina is horrified by it; when their barn burns down in a thunderstorm not long after Karl Oskar’s challenge to God concerning a bad harvest, she is less worried about the barn than she is mindful that God punished them for her husband’s arrogance. She is also more conservative than her husband, less willing to change. As bad as the harvests are and as difficult as the land is to farm, she can’t imagine leaving. But Karl Oskar can, and when Anna dies, so does Kristina’s resistance to leave for America. There’s no triumph for Karl Oskar, though, and not just because his daughter has died a tragically early and avoidable death. As is made clear as the wagons pull away from the village of Korpamoen, with the slow action of the horses pulling and the people huddling together as the camera looks back, leaving Sweden in the 19th Century is not unlike going on a voyage near the speed of light; you won’t see anyone you know again, at least not how you remember them. It’s a victory for Troell’s realism; no other text I know of initiates such a stark reminder of what emigrants past (and present, to some extent) faced when they left their native countries; in a way it’s reminiscent of extinction.

Karl Oskar and Kristina leave with their children, Robert, Robert’s farmhand friend Arvid (Pierre Linstedt), and some of the religious congregation of Kristina’s uncle, the renegade priest Danjel (Allan Edwall). Danjel, in trouble with the law, brings along his wife and children as well as the former parish whore, Ulrika (Monica Zetterlund) and her teenage daughter. It’s a motley crew, and they only get motlier during the long ocean voyage.

Troell effortlessly makes his spaces as wide or as claustrophobic as necessary. On the deck, looking out on the ocean and with the sky above, it seems like there is endless room to stretch legs and spread out – until everyone comes up on deck for meals. Underneath, there is no room at all to speak of, barely any natural light, and people are everywhere, crawling and clutching like the lice that pervade the ship. It feels like the voyage will never end, and the death toll keeps rising. Danjel’s wife, Inga-Lena, dies of disease en route, and another passenger, en route to live with his son in Minnesota, perishes. In a tense scene, Karl Oskar is forced to minister to Kristina through an illness (headlined by maybe the grossest nosebleed I’ve ever seen on film) as his toddlers look on and wonder if their mother will die. With the same kind of balance that Troell uses to control space, von Sydow and Ullmann share a scene which dips from nervy to touching in moments, as they verbally reaffirm the affection that cannot otherwise be consummated onboard. von Sydow, who is lean but takes up a whole bunch of space due to how tall he is, is at right angles with Ullmann, whose long hair echoes her opposing number’s height. It’s a masterfully composed scene, particularly special even compared to many of the other scenes in the film.

Although Karl Oskar and Kristina are the clear stars of the story, Danjel is the most arresting character of the bunch. When we are first introduced to him, he is painted as a thoughtful counterweight to the corrupt spiritual leadership of the parish, with an answer for all questions which makes fools of his prosecutors. Yet over the course of the film he stands out as more cultish. Ulrika’s daughter, Elin, tells Robert that none of Danjel’s congregation need fear seasickness nor make effort to learn English; Danjel says that if they have faith enough, they will be protected from illness and speak English like native-born Americans when they step foot in the new world. Neither of these come to pass, obviously; Danjel is himself laid low by a terrible bout of seasickness, and spends much of the voyage trying to make amends to God for what he conceives to be a lack of faithfulness. Indeed, while he is wrapped up with God, he does not notice that his wife is dying in front of him until it’s too late. “She never told me,” he says. “She never complained.” In America, his infant daughter becomes ill and dies. His first reaction is to remember the Second Commandment; God took his daughter from him because he “idolized her,” and he thanks God for removing the temptation. His appearance is wry but his voice is deadly serious at all times; his pain is evident but his faith is genuine. Edwall, more than any of his co-stars, creates a character who commands attention when he appears onscreen. Among Karl Oskar and Ulrika, who are both unnecessarily blunt, or Kristina and Robert, who can wax flowery, Danjel stands out as the real enigma. (Funnily enough, Edwall, who was playing a character probably old enough to be von Sydow’s father, was only five years his senior in real life – but he looks much older!)

The trip to Minnesota over land is easier and less costly, on the whole, than the trans-Atlantic voyage, but in many ways it is more frustrating. Only Robert has made a half-serious attempt to learn English from a book, and it is badly hampered because, as a rural Swede, he has never heard the language and cannot lean on any knowledge of it. As the film winds down, the company reaches Minnesota and begins to scout out farmland. Only Karl Oskar, out of the heads of household, cannot settle. The land that his townsmen choose is superior to the rocky land from whence they came, but Karl Oskar still quibbles with it. One man calls him picky; Karl Oskar’s rebuttal is that if he came thousands of miles already, he can go a few more to choose a spot which is up to his typically high standard.

The end of the film reminds me of a joke I heard when I was a teenager, told to me and a group of other teens by a priest from Wyoming in Vilnius. (That sounds like it’s the joke, but it’s not.) He asked if we knew what a Swede looked like when he was ecstatic, when he was bursting with joy. We did not, so he demonstrated; he kept a totally straight face. He then asked us if we knew what a Swede looked like when he was at the edge of despair, hopeless and forlorn. I suppose we had a guess, but he showed us anyway; he put on the totally straight face again.

I bring that up because at the end of the film, after having hiked his way through totally unfamiliar ground alone, in a world that is as new to Karl Oskar as it would be to a newborn, he finally reaches the land he wants to settle on. He surveys it. There is a great tree, gnarled and curved and warped like it traveled back in time from the set of Pan’s Labyrinth, and he sits down beneath it. We see that he has, in the custom of settlers, hacked his name into the tree to claim the land: “Karl Oskar Nilsson, Swede.” And as he sits under the shade of that tree, after an odyssey that has claimed lives and weeks and heartache, we can see that underneath his hat, which covers his eyes, there is a smile on his face.

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