Available on Blu-ray and DVD
Migrants, it seems, are always with us. This languorous Swedish epic is set in the 1840’s. Beneath the bucolic surface of shivering birch trees and cabins in the woods (talk about hygge), Karl Oskar and his wife Kristina (Max von Sydow – looking nothing like The Exorcist he played two years later – and Liv Ullman) scratch a living on their unforgiving smallholding but the rains don’t come. The crops fail and they can hardly feed their children. During a lightning storm the hayloft catches fire. It’s quite literally the last straw.
In a secondary story Karl Oskar’s brother Robert (Eddie Axberg) yearns for a better life away from his slave-driving boss. A local preacher (Allan Edwall) is threatened with banishment for conducting unlicensed Holy Communion. The brothers discover that they have both read about the Promised Land of America and the family, the preacher and others from the community set sail.
The imagery (Troell is also the film’s peerless cinematographer) is gorgeous – maybe too much so. Even in the snow of winter their homeland – far removed from the bombed-out desert cities from which today’s migrants risk all to flee – look like the backdrop to a brochure for cashmere onesies. Things develop slowly; long takes make this movie an almost immersive experience. Box-set bingers will feel quite at home. Ullmann is at her pellucid best. She’s an actress of great nuance and irresistibly watchable. Von Sydow appeared with Ullmann in many films and here, as her older and commanding husband he takes a backseat yet remains a powerful presence. Director Troell ensures the audience is engrossed with the story from start to finish. A word must also be said for the designer’s use of sets and costumes which are so faultless it sometimes feels as if you’re watching a 19th-century documentary.
Young and old cooped up together in the rolling ship suffer lice and scurvy. The excitement when they make landfall is palpable although the journey isn’t over; they have to make it to Minnesota by train and riverboat only to discover everything is not quite as they expected.
The follow-up to The Emigrants, New Land, finds the same cast of characters living like paupers in a shanty in the Minnesota woods – strangers in a strange land. They seem to have swapped one brand of unremitting hardship in their native Sweden for another in America. But slowly things start to go right. They get help from neighbours who lend them a cow whose milk is essential for the growing blonde brood. At a family celebration one of the menfolk stands and asks if anyone regrets leaving their homeland. ‘It was appointed that we should move here,’ someone answers but Kristina’s face tells another story. Her brother-in-law Robert heads to California for gold. A harsh winter nearly takes one of the kids and there’s a vague threat from ‘redskins’.
Troell perfectly captures the beautiful landscape of lakes and maple trees in this slowly-evolving, elemental story of humble people who have given up everything for a better life. ‘One day our children will thank us for coming to America,’ says Karl Oskar and there’s a sense that something is going to go terribly wrong. Despite the various hardships it’s the church that starts stirring things up. One of the community, Ulrika (the wonderful Monica Zetterlund), has married a Baptist and is seen by the rival pastor as a lost soul. She is Kristina’s best friend (and impromptu midwife) and for once Kristina stands up for herself.
Robert returns from the Gold Rush visibly older but much richer. And his experiences are told in wordless flashback. It’s another side of the American dream, the bones by the roadside are testament to less lucky fellow travellers. ‘You’re a good person, Robert,’ says Kristina. But is he? This is a breath-taking, slow-moving and lyrical movie. Delicious.