Home Video Hovel: The Emigrants/The New Land, by David Bax
Criterion’s release of Jan Troell’s The Emigrants (1971) and The New Land (1972) as a two-disc set allows us to approach the films in the most fitting possible way, as a single, gargantuan epic. Adapted from novels by Vilhelm Moberg, Troell’s diptych tells the tale of a group of Swedes who leave their homeland in the late 1840s and start anew across the sea in the Minnesota territory. For most of the massive, six and half hour total runtime, Troell favors a straightforward narrative approach that is nonetheless naturalistic and sympathetic to the emotional and physical extremes of the characters and their journeys. On occasion, though, he breaks into extended, impressionistic and nearly wordless segments that recount, in engrossing detail, things such as the backbreaking and unceasing daily efforts to keep a farm running or a young man’s unlucky journey to California to seek his fortune in gold.
The group’s de facto leaders, the first to set their sights on the new world, are Karl Oskar (Max von Sydow) and Kristina (Liv Ullmann), a headstrong farmer and his caring, religious wife, respectively. Along with their gaggle of children, Karl Oskar’s brother, a group of Christians yearning to worship away from the strictures of Sweden’s official church and a sweet, dimwitted farmhand, they roll the dice on a new life in a promised land across the vast ocean (the crossing of which is as much a metaphorical obstacle as an actual one).
Troell’s main ally is time. With so much of it to stretch out in, he can explore the nooks and crannies of both his story and his characters. These folks don’t always come across as saints, particularly the obstinate and arrogant Karl Oskar. But, to stay long enough in anyone’s company is to begin to understand them (the masterful performances don’t hurt). The extended runtime also means we’re in no narrative rush; the first film, at roughly three hours and ten minutes, ends with them finally arriving at their new homestead in Minnesota. That means exacting attention can be paid to major matters like the ten week sea journey, which takes up nearly enough time to be a feature film on its own. Not everyone who gets on the boat steps off of it in New York and Troell takes care to pay respect to every inch of toil. Yet, throughout, he always makes room for everyday levity, in the way of a true humanist.
The Emigrants and The New Land make up an epic drama that is also a love story and also a comedy and also a Western and a few other genres to boot. Karl Oskar persists through it all with a stubbornness that his wife perceives as blasphemy; to Karl Oskar, God is often an inconvenience, an obligatory distraction from the things he needs to accomplish. So, as his own master, he has set off on a hazardous journey and brought others with him. He thrives in America, no doubt. But he and his fellow travelers also encounter strife and tragedy they would have avoided had they remained in Sweden. At the end of this long, long movie, Troell leaves it to us to consider whether it was all worth it.
The transfer, from the original camera negative, is stunning. The almost perfect clarity can be appreciated in the many beautiful shots of nature and the negative itself was clearly in good condition. The audio quality is top notch, as well, which is good because the music by Erik Nordgren, Bengt Ernryd and Georg Oddner is crucial, especially in the second film.
Special features include an introduction by John Simon, a conversation with Troell and Peter Cowie, an interview with Ullmann, a documentary on the making of the two films and an essay by Terrence Rafferty.