The New Land (1972)

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

(My review of The Emigrants, which is less the first movie in a two-part series than it is the first half of this film, is here.)

“We’ll have to figure out what that means,” Karl Oskar (von Sydow) murmurs as he reads over a set of papers with his young son next to him. His son is helping him to translate, for even though Karl Oskar has lived in America for some years now his written English is still imperfect: the word he’s stumbling over is “allegiance.” “Fidelity” follows quickly; the boy knows that one. It’s trohet in Swedish. Are you sure? Karl Oskar asks. It’s an important evening that Kristina (Ullmann) has stumbled into, and perhaps it would be better if she had come into the house a few minutes later. He chuckles when he sees his Anglicized name, and he teases Kristina about going by “Charles O. Nelson” for the foreseeable future. She snaps at him in return. In The Emigrants, Kristina could be a little bit shrill, sometimes childish. “Whining” is maybe an inappropriate word for the situation thrust upon her. She leaves her family and every bit of what she knows to embark on a dangerous voyage with her small children, all because her husband developed and implacable yearning to emigrate. But it’s true enough in tone if not generous in description. There’s a hint of it in the first scene of this film, as Karl Oskar guides his family to the spot where he had made his mark at the end of The Emigrants, but afterwards that inclination basically disappears and is replaced with an aching homesickness. The thought of her Swedish husband, who by the fact of his American citizenship must renounce his nation of origin, going by this Yankee name is another cut to die from. She dies long before her husband, which is just as well. In the letter which lets Karl Oskar’s sister Lydia know that he’s died, the stubborn old man is referred to as “Charles.”

The New Land recognizes that for there to be a new land, there must be an old one somewhere else. Where The Emigrants had its eye on America though so much of it took place in Sweden, the opposite is true in The New Land. A small get-together in the Nilsson home ends abruptly when Kristina begins to sob uncontrollably. Do you ever regret emigrating? one of the guests says. Karl Oskar exclaims that his only regret is that he didn’t make the voyage six years ago; thus the sobs. In bed one night, Kristina whispers a prayer to God: by the power of your hand, she breathes, take me back to Sweden. Karl Oskar hears her and after a few tense moments suggests renaming their home. Rather than Ki-Chi-Saga, he says, we could call it “Duvemåla,” where you’re from. She takes to the suggestion with the toothy smile which is largely missing from the rest of the picture. He procures seeds for the Astrachan apples she grew up eating. He even becomes a deacon (albeit in a church that hasn’t yet been built), which appeals to Kristina’s piety. The movie quietly notes that Karl Oskar has become a real success in America, working his way up from nothing to become the master of a sizable farm with increasing luxuries. Kristina’s sewing machine (made, of course, by ELIAS HOWE) is the only that seems to matter to her very much. Kristina, with her mid-19th Century sensibilities, wants to feel like she’s at home and wants to bear children. Karl Oskar cannot make the first come to pass and, after a while, she can no longer do the second.

Kristina becomes more like herself the older she gets. Karl Oskar makes strides with his English, but there’s no sign that Kristina has any interest in leaving Swedish for a new language. A parson comes along in the middle of a rainy night, and Kristina falls over herself to ensure that he is comfortable, dry, and fed. She waits not a moment longer than she needs to in asking the walkabout minister to give her the absolution she has not had in three years. Her faith takes on a stronger Old Testament vibe; her commandments always seem to be on the tip of her tongue, and she is not shy about loosing reminders about how they ought to be applied. For all of that, her prayers become more and more succinct. After recovering from a miscarriage, she leaves the house and stands on the edge of the water. “You have to be there,” she says. “You must.” Her communion with God is a necessity—Karl Oskar settles far enough away from most of the other Swedish folks that for some time they have no neighbors—but it never becomes conversational. Ulrika (Monica Zetterlund), her only real friend after a rocky introduction in The Emigrants, fields three marriage proposals before finally settling down with Henry Jackson, who lives in the town of Stillwater some distance away from the Nilsson homestead. It turns out that God is not a replacement for Ulrika, and so Kristina becomes less personable as well.

The New Land is mindful of its time and place. In one sequence, Karl Oskar tries to enlist in the Union Army at the outbreak of war, but is turned down after an examination shows that he’s limping much worse than a soldier should. Much more interesting than that are the short chapters in the film which depict the Sioux Uprising of 1862. Throughout the movie, Native Americans come in at the distant edges of the frame and inch closer to Swedish immigrants. In their first appearance, Kristina fearfully looks at a group of two, then three, then five or six Indian women walking single-file towards her; when she goes behind the shanty to get something, it turns out to be a hunk of raw meat. They take it from her, sniff it a little, and then walk back in the direction where they came from. Robert (Axberg) sometimes sees them across the frozen lake. In one winter scene, he panics while he’s out hunting in the woods by himself; certain that he is under attack from flying arrows, he fires at an Indian he sees in a tree and runs back to the house. On further inspection, the man he fired at is a frozen corpse, dead at least two weeks. Karl Oskar’s response to seeing the body is almost amused. They must leave them here until spring, when they can bury the body in dirt that isn’t frozen solid, he guesses.

In the last stretches of the movie, however, the movie takes a much more dramatic turn with the Sioux. Karl Oskar has a heated chat with Samuel Nöjd (Peter Lindgren), who is sympathetic towards the Native Americans. Samuel understands the raw deal that the Indians got from the government and gently chides his neighbor for being uncharitable. Karl Oskar, who has always been a little too literal-minded, challenges Samuel: do you mean to tell me I’ve been involved in some dirty dealings? Samuel smiles ruefully and shakes his head. It’s not your fault, he tells Karl Oskar, but that doesn’t mean the Indians have gotten a fair shake for the most fertile soil in the world. When the movie does consider the Sioux Uprising, which begins about the same time that Kristina dies after her last miscarriage, it almost feels out of place. One scene is deliberately Mansonesque in its cool violence and its lurid imagery. Yet the uprising ends almost as quickly as it begins: thirty-plus warriors are sent to the gallows. At first it feels like an unwelcome break from the movie’s actual plot, but of course it’s doing nothing of the sort. As Sweden comes to America, America must be displaced. The simultaneous hanging of the Sioux is a ritual sacrifice that white America offers to its bloodthirsty gods to ensure that the fertile soil and the vast expanse of land will fall to them; in its own way, although the Nilssons are far from the action, that scene in Mankato is as important as any other across the six and a half hours of The Emigrants and The New Land.

Although both movies were filmed at the same time, one can see Troell’s direction is more aggressive in The New Land. The Emigrants was painterly and a little distant, reveling in the long fight to dislodge boulders or Kristina’s endless nosebleed below decks. The New Land is much more willing to be experimental, to cut rapidly between moments far distant in time and space. In the scene which, silly urban me, I found most moving, Karl Oskar and his oldest son Johan are stuck in a terrific snowstorm with their new ox. Karl Oskar has openly wished that he had his own animal so that he could plow more land, and in one happy scene he procures one; the ox is hacked to death when it appears that Johan might freeze to death if Karl Oskar can’t get him warm. All of this is seen through a photographic effect which creates a snowy scrim over the screen. Robert fills much of the middle third of the movie, although almost all of it is told in wordless flashbacks. Robert, always the dreamer, sets off for California in a quest for gold, and brings his old friend Arvid (Pierre Linstedt) along for the journey. It ends badly. The two of them nearly die of thirst—Arvid eventually succumbs to water he shouldn’t drink and that Robert can’t pull him away from—and Troell depicts Robert’s immense suffering with instantaneous cuts between Robert prone and screaming on the ground and Robert stumbling along in the dirt. Earlier, Troell employed a shaky handheld technique when Robert is running around the forest trying not to get shot at by the Indians who don’t exist. Aside from more invasive techniques, one is just generally more aware that he’s behind the camera than one is in The Emigrants. The New Land recalls small moments from its predecessor in effectively shot scenes. Before the journey across the Atlantic, Robert was fascinated by the little river at Korpamoen, of where it might lead; the last time we see him, he gaits herky-jerky to a riverbank before finally lying on his back, surrounded by trees which are not so different from the ones which grew up around him in his native Småland.

One of the most harrowing scenes of The Emigrants is that aforementioned nosebleed scene, where Kristina lies in her bunk, too weak to raise herself up, while Karl Oskar sits over her. She dies in much the same way, though the image is mirrored. On the boat, her body is laid out left to right and Karl Oskar sits at her feet; in her home, she is right to left, with Karl Oskar in the same place. On the boat, she cheated death in the middle of the night; in her home, she dies not long after dawn. And though it was quiet on the ship as well, one gauged a certain amount of natural chaos. It is utterly serene when Kristina goes, interspersed with shots of the curtained window. The entire scene reminded me of Emily Dickinson’s “I heard a Fly buzz = when I died -“ for its spare beauty, as well as the way that Kristina dies with her blue eyes wide open: “And then the Windows failed – and then/I could not see to see -“. In that moments, one is thankful for a director who interposes himself like the Fly does. The scene crowns the double feature perfectly, recognizing the emigration and the settlement alike.

One thought on “The New Land (1972)

  1. […] (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.) […]

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