THE EMIGRANTS (UTVANDRARNA)/THE NEW LAND (NYBYGGRNA)
Dir. Jan Troell; Cast: Max von Sydow, Liv Ullmann, Eddie Axberg, Allan Edwall, Monica Zetterlund, Eva-Lena Zetterlund, Pierre Lindstedt; Sweden 1971/72, 151 min. (The Emigrants), 102 min. (The New Land)
To direct an epic of such ambition totalling 253 minutes is an achievement in itself, but Jan Troell (*1931) was also his own DoP, co-writer and editor in this saga based on two novels by Vilhelm Moberg. Troell tells his story with great care, the characters are are given plenty of backstory, and their suffering is told with great empathy. The drama is full of stunningly photographed images – particularly impressive are the contrasting landscapes in Sweden and the USA.
Spanning nearly half a century from its beginning in 1844, The Emigrants/The New Land tells the story of a Swedish family who emigrated to the United States after much hardship in their homeland.
Karl Oscar (von Sydow), a hard working farmer in the Swedish province of Smaland, is married to Kristina (Ullmann); the couple have a constantly growing number of children which they can hardly feed, since the land is barren and the weather extremely inclement. Karl Oscar’s much younger brother Robert (Axberg) is working for a rich farmer who treats him like a slave, beating him up sadistically. Kristina’s uncle Danjel (Edwall) is a lay preacher who rebels against the teaching of the state church which favours the wealthy. Danjel lives with Ulrika (M. Zetterlund), who once was sold to a brothel, and her daughter Elin (E.L. Zetterlund). After Karl-Oscar’s barn burns down during a thunderstorm, the families decide to emigrate to the USA. The crossing on a ship is dangerous, and many of the passengers die.
The second part, The New Land starts where part one ended, when Karl Oscar settles with his family (and the still growing number of children) near Minnesota. Robert decides to leave his family, who has built a new house and is having a better living standard than in Sweden: together with Arvid (Lindstedt) he wants try his luck as a gold digger in California. Arvid dies from a fever, Robert makes a fortune and is swindled out of it, before returning to his family, where he dies of a virus infection caught during his travels. Later Sioux Indians attack the white settlers, killing Danjel and his three children. Kristina, who always was homesick for Sweden, dies in 1862, having given birth to seven children and suffering many miscarriages. Finally, after given the farm to his children, we learn about Karl-Oscar’s death in 1890.
The ocean crossing journey is one of the highpoints: the elements that have challenged the emigrants in Sweden, seem to conspire against them with force once they set sail. Von Sydow is majestic in his willingness to find a new home for his family, Ullmann’s Kristina is a honest portrait of a woman’s life in the 19th century. Edwall’s Danjel is well cast as a would-be Jesus opposite Monica Zetterlund’s Maria-Magdalene. In spite of its length, this epic never lets audience out its grip, it is pure cinema, a story of defiance told with humanistic warmth. AS
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