[Originally published in Movietone News 34, August 1974]
It may be a peculiarity of my character that a little of Jan Troell’s unassumingness goes a very long way. There’s something very admirable—and certainly “grownup,” to anyone passionately concerned that the movies grow away from Melodrama and towards Life—about his talent for capturing the offhand beauties of a field, a rock, the picturesque yet undecorative angle from which the whimsy, at once gentle and profound, of a pregnant woman indulging in her last reverie on a swing is observed and defined. TheNewLand begins (at least, as it is shown in this country) with a slow, obscurely motivated zoom-out from a deep stand of trees somewhere in 19th-century Minnesota, the sound of … an axe? a gun? a wheel? … reverberating within. Anything could be happening there—something surely seems to be happening there—and in its own good time the land and the film may reveal that something to us.
[Originally published in Movietone News 35, September 1974]
Quite early in Jan Troell’s TheNewLand one realizes one is watching not a sequel, not the conclusion of a two-part magnum opus, but a second film. While TheNewLand represents a narrative extension of the events of TheEmigrants, it also embodies a thematic and stylistic counterattack on the first film.
From the first shot of TheEmigrants—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.
Here Is Your Life (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD), the 1966 feature debut of Swedish director Jan Troell, is ambitious by any measure: an epic (over two-and-a-half hours long) coming of age drama based on the semi-autobiographical novels by Nobel Prize-winning author Eyvind Johnson set in rural Sweden during the years of World War I.
It was also a response to the symbol-laden, psychologically heavy cinema of Ingmar Bergman, which was pretty much all the rest of the world knew about Swedish cinema in the early sixties. Here is Your Life, the feature debut of Jan Troell, was part of a new wave of Swedish cinema. Not quite Sweden’s answer to the nouvelle vague, it nonetheless ushered in young (or at least younger) filmmakers and different approaches, from the passionate romanticism of Bo Widerberg’s Elvira Madigan to the freewheeling intimacy of Vilgot Sjöman’s I Am Curious – Yellow, both 1967.
Framed in those terms, Here is Your Life is a fresh take on the classic historical drama. Olaf (Johnson’s stand-in, played by Eddie Axberg) is a mere 13 years old when he leaves the farm of his foster parents (sent there because his real parents are too poor to feed him) and sets out to make his own way in the world. The film follows him through his teenage years as he moves from job to job—he works at a lumber camp, a brick furnace, a sawmill, a movie theater, a travelling tent cinema, a carnival shooting booth, and maintaining the engines at a railroad yard—and schools himself by reading philosophy and attending socialist meetings.