off to The Criterion Collection for releasing Blu-ray editions of these two
remarkable motion pictures. They have not been available in the U.S. since the
days of VHS.
double feature is really one big movie divided into two, both of them epics,
approximately six-and-a-half hours in total length, with built-in intermissions
in each picture. It’s the monumental story of a group of Swedish emigrants who
make their way to America in the 1840s and settle in the Minnesota wilderness.
The tale covers roughly thirty years, but the story officially ends in 1890.
The Emigrants and The New Land were landmark Swedish imports that gained much
acclaim and popularity at the time of their release. The Emigrants was the third foreign language film to be nominated
for the Best Picture Oscar (in 1972; the previous year it had been nominated
for Best Foreign Language Picture). Jan Troell also received Directing and
Screenwriting nominations (co-written with Bengt Forslund), and Liv Ullmann was
given the nod for Best Actress (she lost to Liza Minnelli in Cabaret). The New Land was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film the same
year The Emigrants was up for Best
co-stars with her frequent Bergman collaborator, Max von Sydow, as Kristina and
Karl-Oscar, a poor married couple with children who decide that their farm in
Sweden is a loser and the government is corrupt and unhelpful. The dream of
many Europeans was to go to America, the promised “new land” of opportunity.
But in 1840, that wasn’t so easy. It took some money, certainly, but it also
required near-superhuman fortitude, health, and bravery. People could die crossing the ocean. Oh, and they
also had to know how to build their own house, toil the earth, grow and hunt
their own food, and fully support and protect their families in a time when
Native Americans (i.e., “savages”) were living amongst them. Karl-Oscar is up
for the challenge; after the death of their young daughter from starvation in
Sweden, Kristina finally agrees to emigrate. They join a straggly group of
friends and extended family and make the journey together.
on classic Swedish novels by Vilhelm Moberg, The Emigrants begins in Sweden, covers the harrowing trip over the
ocean and then the trek cross country from the east coast to the Midwest. The New Land follows their struggles to
make lives for themselves in a hostile, but beautiful, environment. The story
is presented with brutal realism and authenticity. After viewing the pictures,
there will be no doubt in one’s mind what it was really like to be an early
settler. The boat voyage alone is so powerfully realized that you won’t easily
forget it. The journey takes ten weeks, during which the twenty or so
emigrants, living in the cramped steerage of a relatively small packet ship,
undergo serious seasickness, scurvy, starvation, conflict, and some deaths.
protagonist couple meets each new obstacle with tremendous strength, although
the years and frequent childbirths begin to take a toll on Kristina. Both von
Sydow and Ullmann are exceptionally good, especially in the scenes of intimacy
between two people who obviously love each other very much and are willing to
sacrifice everything for each other.
Eddie Axberg, as Karl-Oscar’s younger brother, is also a standout with his own
set of adventures that develop into a subplot as he leaves Minnesota with a
friend and heads toward California and its siren call of gold everywhere.
photographed, the new high-definition digital restorations, with new English
subtitle translations, look fantastic. Troell’s pace might be considered slow
by today’s standards, but like Kubrick’s Barry
Lyndon, which also strived to recreate a time and place that no longer
exists and succeeded, both The Emigrants and
The New Land capture not only the
harshness of the era, but also its grace, simplicity, and beauty.
supplements in the two-disc set include a new introduction to the films by
theatre and film critic John Simon; a new conversation between film scholar
Peter Cowie and director Troell; a new interview with Liv Ullmann; an hour long
documentary from 2005 on the making of the pictures with archival footage and
interviews with key personnel; and trailers. An essay by critic Terrence
Rafferty appears in the booklet.
is impressive, exemplary filmmaking, something any devotee of quality European
motion pictures needs to see. You may not want to get on a boat ever again.