Thursday, October 15, 2015

The Emigrants (1971) & The New Land (1972)

          Screened in tandem, The Emigrants and its sequel, The New Land, comprise nearly seven hours of narrative material, all depicting the travails of a 19th-century Swedish family that relocates from their homeland to Minnesota. Accordingly, the first question that must be asked is whether cowriter/director Jan Troell needed seven hours to communicate the story that he tells across the two pictures. The simple answer to that question is no, but the simple answer is deceptive. It’s inarguable that both The Emigrants and The New Land contain superfluous scenes. Similarly, both films suffer from extraordinary bloat. Important scenes drag on past the point of impact, minor scenes are given too much screen time, and Troell periodically stops the drama cold to linger on an idyllic shot of a stream or a panoramic view of a forest. Both films are so indulgent, from the perspective of content and pacing, that it’s tempting to joke that Troell set out to tell an epic story in real time.
          Yet buried inside the expanse of these movies, and indeed woven into the very fabric of scenes that run longer than they should, is something deeply important—a sense of chronological weight. In telling a story about an era that precedes the fast-paced modern age, Troell found an appropriate style for conveying the drudgery of work, the monumental scope of international travel, and the sheer hardship of survival. Making audiences feel as if they’d been on an exhausting journey wasn’t the only way to explore the themes of the Vilhem Moberg novels upon which the two films are based, but it was an artistically credible way of doing so. No surprise, then, that massive acclaim was showered upon The Emigrants and The New Land both at home in Sweden and internationally.
          The first film introduces viewers to Karl Oskar Nilsson (Max Von Sydow) and his wife, Kristina (Liv Ullmann), as well as Karl Oskar’s younger brother, Robert (Eddie Axberg). In the broadest strokes, Karl Oskar realizes that he cannot sustain life in Sweden anymore, thanks to a deadly combination of famine, poverty, and religious persecution. With several children in tow, the Nilssons and several of their friends embark on a brutal journey from Sweden to America. By the time Karl Oskar finds what he deems the perfect location for a new homestead in the woods of Minnesota, the first movie is over. The New Land dramatizes the struggles that Karl Oskar, his family, and other Swedes encounter while trying to become successful farmers despite language barriers, limited resources, and the threat of hostile Indians. Much of the second picture is devoted to a harrowing adventure that Robert experiences when he leaves the homestead to seek gold in California.
          Although joyful moments occur periodically, deprivation and tragedy dominate The Emigrants and The New Land. Part history, part soap opera, and part tribute to indomitable settlers, these films are monumental in their dimensions. The stories cover decades, and the entire lives of certain characters are depicted. Troell accentuates subtle tropes, so many scenes feel impressionistic or even surreal, even though the movies address certain topics (especially religion) with detailed dialogue. At their best, these pictures have the sort of immersive realism that later became commonplace in American miniseries derived from literature. The Emigrants and The New Land require tremendous attention, patience, and stamina from viewers, so the movies are not for everyone, especially because the narratives are bleak. By any measure, however, the films represent extraordinary accomplishments.
          The labors of Troell and his collaborators were recognized by entities including the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences—both movies were nominated as Best Foreign Film in their respective release years, and The Emigrants has the odd distinction of receiving Oscar nominations in two separate years, because when the film was rereleased, it earned a nomination as Best Picture, rare for foreign films in any circumstances. FYI, Hollywood generated a short-lived TV series based on the material. Costarring Kurt Russell, The New Land aired for all of one month in the fall of 1974, flopping so badly that half the produced episodes were shelved.

The Emigrants: GROOVY
The New Land: GROOVY

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