Posted in: by Robert C. Cumbow, Contributors, Essays, Film Reviews

emigrants & immigrants

[Originally published in Movietone News 35, September 1974]

Quite early in Jan Troell’s The New Land one realizes one is watching not a sequel, not the conclusion of a two-part magnum opus, but a second film. While The New Land represents a narrative extension of the events of The Emigrants, it also embodies a thematic and stylistic counterattack on the first film.

From the first shot of The Emigrants—the camera’s long, slow crawl over the rocky landscape of a 19th-century Swedish farm—we are aware we are watching something special; and with Troell’s hand in control of screenplay, camera, direction, and editing, we have reason to expect a one-man show, a rare level of unity and integrity in form, style, and content. In the first half-hour of the film, Troell introduces his principal characters to us through a carefully edited series of moments in their lives, selected from the passage of some five years’ narrative time. He edits not only to depict the passage of time, but also to systematically separate and dissociate his characters from their milieu: both story and style place the characters at war with their social, historical, and environmental circumstances. Karl Oskar Nilsson (Max von Sydow) is frustrated by his family’s inability to improve their lot, and by his own vulnerability to the whims of nature and a God he cannot accept. His wife, Kristina (Liv Ullmann), has a firmer faith, but is troubled by doubts and plagued with guilt because her physical love for her husband keeps saddling them with new children she fears they cannot feed. Karl Oskar’s brother Robert (Eddie Axberg) is a fledgling intellectual, disinclined to the manual labor to which he was born. Robert’s friend Arvid (Pierre Lindstedt) is the opposite, a true man of the earth, but one who is excluded from human companionship because of his simpleminded innocence. Daniel (Atlan Edwall) is a religious visionary whose ideas earn him the scorn of the Christian establishment and a price on his head. His principal follower, a former prostitute named Ulrika (Monica Zetterlund), is a social outcast with no regrets, whose efforts to find her own meaning are thwarted at every turn by social and religious persecution.

Through Troell’s episodic editing, the several plights become aspects of a single overriding predicament. The various sufferers light upon the same solution: emigration to America.

Most sequences of the film are virtually static, many containing so little movement that they call to mind the compositional approach of a painter or a still photographer. The abundance—in the early part of the film especially—of closeups and two-shots, “portraits” with subtly fluctuating side-lighting, supports this impression. The continuity of the film is developed rarely within individual sequences, but rather “between” them, in the assembly of selected moments from the characters’ lives.

There is a narrative, to be sure; but Troell’s style emphasizes the impact of separate incidents, not their flow and direction. In this way he is able to stress the uncertainty of what lies ahead for the emigrants, their anticipation, and the ambiguity of their responses to encounters with one another, with the experience of emigration, and with the arrival in the new world. His film thus acquires the slow but steady pace of life itself, expressing the trying duration through which his characters move with only the vaguest of goals.

As The Emigrants unreels, the concept of the new land becomes less and less a dream, more and more a reality. But, though the dream-image is not fulfilled, Troell doesn’t simplistically dismiss America as a lie, a shattered dream, a broken promise. There are harshness and disappointment, but also joy and fulfillment, particularly in the subtle, quick cut of Kristina’s first step onto the new land, and Karl Oskar’s staking of his claim at the end of the film.

Troell’s photography creates stunning, unforgettable images; and, though nearly all the shots last longer than the filmgoer is accustomed to, we suspend our eagerness for the cut because we are so caught up in the lifelike immediacy of the film’s world. Our familiarity with the conventions of cinematic suspense leads us to believe, as we first encounter these long takes early in The Emigrants (Kristina on the swing, and later swinging her daughter; Robert and Arvid fighting over the axe), that something terrible is about to happen—but, as in real life, it doesn’t. Life goes on, things work out, and only the memory of the uncertainty remains. When shocking things do happen in the film, they happen offscreen (the barn struck by lightning, the death of Danjel’s wife), or “between” cuts (the foreman’s whipping of Robert, the death of the Nilssons’ eldest daughter); or they are photographed so casually (Kristina’s interminable nosebleed, Robert’s vomiting) that horror is circumvented and only the numb after-shock is felt. This stylized realism, of an impressionist bent reminiscent of Bo Widerberg, creates an overwhelmingly affecting immediacy—and nowhere more so than in the steerage sequences, with their powerful suggestion of the presence of unseen lice and urine.

But early in The New Land, the technique changes. It is less elliptical, more searching, and frequently more labored. We see, at last, the birth of one of Kristina’s children. We witness, rather than hear about, the deaths of Arvid, Danjel, and Kristina. In fact, we see a bit too much: the long flashback of Robert and Arvid lost in the desert; the murder of Danjel and his companions by the Sioux; and an apparent purple patch depicting the hanging of 38 rebellious Indians—the only incident in either film that neither involves nor directly affects the principal characters. There are other things we don’t see and feel we should. The Emigrants covers six years of narrative time and Troell’s editing makes it believable. More than twice that time passes in The New Land without seeming to. In The Emigrants the flow of the film itself conveys the sweeping passage of time; the several incidents depicted are linked by recurrent, unifying images: Kristina’s swings, the taking of food and rest, a bowl of floating blossoms. In The New Land, Troell gives greater importance to certain key incidents (especially those involving relations with the Indians, and the westward journey of Robert and Arvid), and narrows his vision to specific episodes in the lives of three people, rather than allowing selected moments to represent the whole flow of those lives. The passage of time is thus less emphatically expressed, and Troell falls back on devices like flashback, explanatory titles, dates on letters and gravestones, and the oldest one in sound cinema—the ticking of a clock. Too seldom do we see the children, whose growth and development would seem to be an important facet of life in the new land. We see almost no new buildings and machines appearing; and, aside from the marvelously satisfying shot of Karl Oskar’s fields of grain, we see few physical changes in the land itself, though there had to be many.

In The New Land, Troell relies more and more on flashy devices, which he scrupulously avoids in The Emigrants. Robert’s journey west is told as a combination of dream, memory, and flashback. His brush with death in the desert is expressed in the “flicker” crosscutting of his face with his stumbling silhouette. His damaged ear, in The Emigrants a painful reminder of the oppression of the farm laborer in Sweden, becomes in The New Land a belabored symbol of the guilt he feels for Arvid’s death. When, early in the film, two Indians enter the Nilssons’ cabin and Kristina covers her face in fear of the threat, a subjective jump-cut leaves us in doubt as to whether the Indians were ever really there. Later, in the raid on Danjel’s settlement, the killing of three men by the Indians is repeated, shown once in exterior, once through a window in an interior shot.

In its music, too, The New Land seems less effective than The Emigrants. The first film uses music sparsely, avoiding overdramatization. When music is used, it comments on the narrative without forcing an emotional response from the viewer. Its primary motif is a heroic brass fanfare, suggestive of hope and triumph (at the first sighting of the ship, and at the end of the film, especially); but it is made ambiguous, even ominous, by discordant harmonies in the strings. The New Land overuses music, and its score is far shallower: here the main motif is a gentle, idyllic melody for bassoon and flute, depthless in its effort to link the elemental existence of the settlers with the primitivism of the Indians. Even less subtle is the use of an urgent percussion solo to coerce audience involvement in Robert’s painful memory of the journey west and Arvid’s death.

‘The Emigrants’

These unexpected changes in style and tone lead the viewer at first look to conclude that The New Land is an inferior sequel to The Emigrants. But most disconcerting of all (and here we shall see how all this is to a very definite directorial purpose) is the sharp change in social viewpoint from the first film to the second. In The Emigrants, narrative, style, and viewpoint are perfectly integrated. The epigraph prepares us for something as sweeping and undefined as history itself: “This is the story of some people who emigrated from Sweden to North America. …” Not a story in the traditional sense, then, but a narrative that must of necessity leave out a great deal and convey its story through indicative incidents. The sense of history is to be obtained not from the expansive, superficial storytelling of many “spectaculars” and adapted novels, but through the close examination of a few specific moments in the lives of the characters. As The Emigrants begins, their lives are separate and individual; but in the course of the film they become increasingly interdependent as their lives become one experience with the emigration to America. By the end of the film Karl Oskar, Kristina, Robert, Arvid, Danjel, Danjel’s wife Ulrika and her daughter are as interested in and involved with one another as we are in their story. Closeups and two-shots have given way to more and more group shots, and a sense of community has been established both narratively and stylistically.

It seems at first glance inappropriate, then, that this sense of community appears totally lacking shortly after the beginning of The New Land. The brotherly love that was so long and painfully a-borning, and crystallized finally in the reconciliation of Kristina and Ulrika, is evident briefly at the Nilssons’ housewarming, where the Swedes express their gladness at having come to the new land and Kristina breaks into tears. Soon after, it is replaced by constant fear, apprehension, suspicion, intolerance. Hearing an axe in the wood, Karl Oskar approaches his new neighbor with the guarded indignation of the jealous property-owner. Already it’s getting too crowded around here. The New Land moves back to an almost exclusive involvement with the Nilssons. Danjel—whose near-fanatical religious conviction could have been traced in much more detail as the flight from persecution ends only in the intolerance of self-righteous splinter-groups—scarcely appears at all. Per Oscarsson appears in a brief cameo as a traveling Fundamentalist pastor come to tend the Swedish flock, but gives us only a hint of the religious issues that the film might relevantly have pursued. Ulrika, once again a religious outcast, moves away to marry a Baptist minister, and has only a pair of significant scenes in the film. The friendship of Robert and Arvid, so lovingly conveyed in The Emigrants with the sensitive bunkhouse scenes, seems depthless here, a mere convenience of plot. (Of course, by reports, the prints of The New Land currently in distribution here are substantially cut, and I tend to believe it when confronted with puzzles like the inexplicable disappearance between the two films of Ulrika’s daughter [Eva-Lena Zetterlund], an important character in The Emigrants).

What is evident here is a profound sense of fragmentation, by which The New Land substitutes individualism for the communialism achieved at the end of The Emigrants. In the first film individual portraits, incidents, and vignettes were united to form one “big story.” In the second film, the “big story” is broken down into a series of short stories, often difficult to relate to one another in the passage of historical time. But Troell edited The Emigrants to dissociate characters from their native land, to bring them together for an adventure. In The New Land, the adventure of emigration behind them, the group inevitably fragments into subgroups and single individuals. The narrative style moves in the opposite direction from that of The Emigrants, isolating individuals once again, finding them finally as they were in the beginning: associated with—and subject to—not one another, but the land.

The reason that style and content seem at war in The New Land is that we expect a different content than what Troell actually gives us. After the promising finale of The Emigrants we expect to find fulfillment and change where there can be none. The promise of the new land is not left unfulfilled—these people built America, after all—but we become acutely aware that, though people can change the land, and the course of history, they are virtually powerless to change themselves.

Thus The New Land gives us a Karl Oskar who still has not learned to accept his brother, who is still impatient and frustrated, who sees his rejection from the army as a rebuke to his masculinity, and who lives out his last, lonely years a drained man, still sees himself as the toy of a capricious, loathed God. Danjel’s religious fervor has faded, to be once again subjugated to the Fundamentalist professions of the community. Kristina is still unable to resolve the conflict between the attraction to physical love and the dangers of childbirth, and dies after a miscarriage brought on by her unwillingness to practice the only available birth control, celibacy. The hardships of pioneer life are no less intense than those of farm life in the Old Country—and perhaps the greatest shock of either film is our discovery, after the death of a wan, wasted Kristina, that she was only 37 years old.

The key scenes that index Arvid’s character in The Emigrants are almost symmetrically repeated in The New Land: we see him still bedding next to Robert, looking to Robert for education, killing mosquitos as once he killed bedbugs, weeping now from fear and loneliness on the way to California, as once he wept over the vicious slanders the Swedish landowners bandied about him. The fight when Robert tries to make him vomit up the poisoned water recalls their first fight over the axe in The Emigrants.

Arvid is less restless, less idealistic than Robert. He is content in Minnesota (“I’m glad we came to America”), but is equally content to move on, to seek adventure with his friend. The emigration of Robert and Arvid is not the desperate effort at self-extrication and self-betterment of Karl Oskar. It is the fanciful journey of youth in its search for a goal, a new identity and significance. It is a westward journey, like the one that fascinated the Metaphysical Poets, symbolizing not so much the march of Old World culture toward new horizons as the search of the restless spirit for some kind of divine assurance. It is Troell’s most cynical irony that the journey leads to hideous, pointless death for Arvid, and to painful, jaded manhood for Robert.

“It will be different when we get to America,” Robert tells Arvid in The Emigrants; and in The New Land he insists, “It will be all right when we get to California.” For him, it will never really be “different.” He is a restless wanderer (the Nilssons are not yet settled in Minnesota when he tells Ulrika’s daughter of his intent to go to California to dig for gold). One suspects that what he is seeking is the home his father shamed him into leaving early in The Emigrants. When he finally finds peace in death it is by the bank of a gentle stream scarcely different from the one in Sweden to which he fled from work to read Natural Science and admire nature.

The changes we expect the new land to create in the emigrants never occur, and the supreme—though more bittersweet than bitter—irony of The New Land is that the only thing the emigrants are unable to alter is the very thing they most sought to change, their own destiny.

The New Land fragments because its characters begin to realize this. Its concerns are more internalized than those of The Emigrants: with the inward-turning that comes with age, the Nilssons begin to analyze their emotions, not merely express them. Karl Oskar begins to realize that there is something wrong with his treatment of his brother; Kristina and Karl Oskar, by the end of the film, are able to discuss homesickness, not merely express it—as Kristina does early in the film in inarticulate tears. And Karl Oskar speaks his resentment of God as a conviction, not as a cry of hurt rage.

‘The New Land’

Where The Emigrants is concerned with the fact of emigrating, The New Land examines the effect of having emigrated. One might say that The Emigrants is about emigration and The New Land is about immigration; for in the first film we see the new land with the eyes of the several characters, while in the second we observe the characters from the emotionless viewpoint of the land. David Harrell, in his review of The New Land in MTN 28, writes:

… when the men become lost in a desert, it is apparent that the film’s structure does not set the usual limits upon our perception of their suffering. I attribute this to a peculiarity of style which might be called the implacability of our vantage point—as if we were the desert …

From this new distance the foregone basic assumptions of The Emigrants become relative. The Nilssons’ very ownership of the land is called into question with the development of the Indian motif; that “purple patch” hanging scene is there because it neatly compresses into a few shots the whole ugly systematic elimination of the land’s first owners. Troell’s Indians are eminently realistic Indians—primitives, certainly, but never savages. They are first seen approaching the Nilsson cabin with all the caution of wary animals. Later, they are casual, not ominous, and in the raid on Danjel’s settlement they are every bit as confused as their victims. It is fashionable now to speak in facile generalities about America’s having been stolen from the Indians; but in Karl Oskar we see the problem on an individual level, in all its complex moral ambiguity.

The final question of the film is even more ominous, the value and validity of emigration in the first place. Though we see little examination of the conflict which must necessarily have obtained between Old World customs and values and New World settlement life, we see everywhere a sense of homesickness. Even as they rejoice at the wisdom and success of their emigration, the Swedes speak lovingly of their home parishes. Kristina’s homesickness is symbolized in her apple tree, and overtly expressed in much of her dialogue. Karl Oskar’s, admitted to briefly, is shown in his loving examination of a map of his and Kristina’s home county. Robert and Arvid suffer the least, because of their youth: they regard the new land as their home, and a significant point is reached when Arvid, bound west with Robert, weeps and asks to go home. By “home” he means the Minnesota settlement, not Sweden, and this creates a sharp contrast to Kristina’s homesickness for the Old Country, resulting in a strong and immediate awareness of the disruption in the lives of the emigrants. One wonders where they really do belong.

But Karl Oskar makes his commitment, as “Nilsson” gradually becomes “Nelson” and “Karl” is later dropped for “Charles.” The last shot of the film is a photograph of Karl Oskar as the lionized patriarch of a large clan of Americans; in voiceover we hear a joyous post-mortem letter acclaiming his accomplishments. This contrasts sharply with the last scenes we see of him alive, alone, homesick, embittered by Kristina’s death, jealous of his children (even as his own father was in The Emigrants), with nothing left but his memories and his regrets. Through the window of his cabin we see him isolated in yellow light, building Kristina’s coffin, even as—some 15 years before—he built their first daughter’s. His memories are of Sweden. Has his life really been any different from what it would have been had he not emigrated? Was it all worth it? The grown and growing children in that final photograph, and his sweeping fields of grain, bear testimony to some fruits of the action; but as the photograph becomes obscured under the final credits, Karl Oskar’s face stares out at us, his hollow expression—like the fluctuating tone of Troell’s two films—filling us with unresolved doubts.

Direction, Cinematography, and Editing: Jan Troell. Screenplay: Troell and Bengt Forslund, after the novels The Emigrants, Unto a Good Land, and The Lost Letter Home by Vilhelm Moberg. Art Direction: P.A. Lundgren (The Emigrants only) and Lennart Blomkvist. Music: Erik Nordgren (The Emigrants only) and Bengt Ernryd and George Oddner (The New Land). Production: Forslund. A Svensk Filmindustri production, released in the United States by Warner Brothers.
The Players: Max von Sydow, Liv Ullmann, Eddie Axberg, Allan Edwall, Monica Zetterlund, Pierre Lindstedt, Ulla Smidje, Hans Alfredson, Halvar Biork, Eva-Lena Zetterlund, Ake Fridell, Per Oscarsson.

Copyright © 1974 Robert C. Cumbow