#796 The Emigrants
#797 The New Land
Criterion Release Date: 9 Feb 2016 (LINK)
I was skeptical at first in spending six-and-a-half hours on watching two Swedish films back to back. Jan Troell’s epic saga on the journey of the nineteenth century Swedish emigrants to the America does not sound compelling to me; and the fact that my previous experience on Troell’s first feature Here’s Your Life (1966), a coming-of-age story of a Swedish peasant boy, just failed to resonate, kind of diminished my enthusiasm further. Therefore, how could I expect the joy and, most importantly, the feeling of fulfillment, after the six hours flown by. When the ending credits rolled up on the framed family photo of Karl Oskar (Max von Sydow) with his abundance of children and grand-kids, my eyes were filled with tears of emotion. It seems that I have lived through a life together with Karl Oskar and his family, from the beginning to the end, from birth to death, from the Genesis to the Revelation. This is the sense of fulfillment I got from the integrity of the film, and there is rarely a film (in this case, two films) can achieve that.
There are no lacking of emigrants or immigrants stories in the film history. From the earlier years of silent comedy, Charlie Chaplin had portrayed an immigrant on the voyage across the Atlantic Ocean in the rightly named short The Immigrant (1917); or more a more recent The Immigrant (2013) by James Gray featuring Marion Cotillard as a Polish refugee. Not least this year Best Picture nominated period drama, Brooklyn (2015), told a story of a young Irish woman’s immigration to Brooklyn. But above all, the most quotable example would be Robert De Niro’s Vito Corleone, from a Sicilian boy to New York City’s Godfather in The Godfather Part II (1974). However, all these films, with all due respect, either solely focused on the American side after the immigration, or lacked a comprehensive overview, misplacing the crux of “immigration” with the protagonist’s personal motivation alone.
Together with The Emigrants (1971) and The New Land (1972), the crux of “immigration” is preserved. It is about the displacement in space. The first part is physical, a change of location from one place to another, it’s about the process, more or less a travelogue. So it’s not a coincidence for The Emigrants (1971) to end at the moment of Karl Oskar craving his family name on the tree bark as a sign of claiming the land he found. It’s the moment that their physical journey ended, hence finishing the displacement. The only film, sorry for my ignorance if there is other example I missed, that is comparable based on the same utilization of displacement, is Elia Kazan’s America, America (1963) which a Cappadocian Greek boy escaped from his impoverished village to Turkish capital Constantinople (later renamed Istanbul), then embarked on voyage to New York.
Both The Emigrants and America, America dealt with two essential theme: the tenacious reason for leaving the home country, and the unforgiving hardship in the process. Not till The Emigrants reaches its halfway mark then the journey of Karl Oskar and his family truly begin. Yet, the earlier one half is as rewarding as the remaining: it establishes the barrenness of the Swedish soil (at least on Oskar’s farm which hardly grow any grains), aridity of its climate (no rain, and thunderbolt causing fire on the barn) and the confinement of the conservative social system. There is natural beauty captured by Jan Troell’s camera (he was credited for direction, cinematography and editing) in pictorial composition, as well as mundane adversity in the peasants life. Nils (Sven-Olof Bern), Oskar’s aged father, broke his leg by a fallen boulder in the field; Oskar and his wife Kristina (Liv Ullmann) just barely kept their four young children alive from dead in hunger. Oskar’s younger brother Robert (Eddie Axberg) was reaching adolescence, and soon worked under another farmer to earn enough food, but at the same time suffered from repeated beatings. Kristina believed praying to God is their hope while Oskar only has doubts. Meanwhile, Kristina uncle Danjel (Allan Edwall), a self-dictated pastor was banned from preaching by the bureaucratic higher order. Robert and Oskar independently generated the idea of moving to the America, in hope of fertile land and freedom, Kristina was in opposition. Finally a tragic death pushed everything in motion.
The authentic portrait of the nineteenth century Sweden was transferred from Vilhelm Moberg’s four-part series novel into visual, which carries a sense of genuine nostalgia in every frame. The trivia is that Vilhelm Moberg selectively chose Jan Troell to be the director of his novel’s screen adaptation after watching Here’s Your Life (thanks god he did not bear the same underwhelming reaction as I had, maybe I should revisit it later). Both films carried a similar sentimentality towards a lost past, the gradual lost of innocence in Here’s Your Life, the realisation of losing your root in your birth place in The Emigrants. The first step in emigration is giving up everything ones have that cannot be taken along. To Oskar, there was not much regret except leaving his parents behind. At the same time, they intend to eschew the despair and inequality that were deemed indisputable in staying. After a thorough introduction to these main characters, we the audience was already part of the companionship. But soon we realize the risk of emigration may outweigh the gain.
The second half of The Emigrants is a audacious journey that a modern city man like me find it unbearable to watch, in particular the unforgiving voyage across the Atlantic Ocean. There are problems of external factors (uncontrollable weather), general health hazard (from harmless seasickness to deadly scurvy), or individual complications (unexpected pregnancy, personal hygiene). The sense of catastrophe was enhanced when interpersonal conflicts arouse: Ulrika (Monica Zetterlund), an ex-prostitute in Danjel’s group of followers, was blamed for the lice by Kristina since she was deemed “dirty” in nature. There was uncivilised ignorance and blinded faith found even on the most gentle peasant. Catholic religion, a subject commonly used by Sweden director Ingmar Bergmen, was nonetheless flowing in the characters’ blood, it was what they were taught in growing up. The film established this root immediately in the opening scene, with a group of mindless-looking peasants sitting in the church listening to the pastor. Danjel, the believer, regarded seasickness as the expression of sinful man, so it was a shock to him that the only one not feeling sick was Ulrika. Whereas his wife, Inga-Lena (Ulla Smidje) hid the fact that she was severely sick in fear of adding burden to him.
Arriving in the American soil, with the cost of several death, was nonetheless relieving, yet at the same time confusing. When Robert and his sidekick Arvid (Pierre Lindstedt), an over-weighted young worker he met during his previous work in Sweden, strolled through a chaotic market street, the fast cutting handheld camera work produced an other-worldly disorientation. Is that the America that the emigrants dreamed of, or a more realistic down-to-earth version instead of an idealized one? Still there is hope, as Robert explained there were only two types of people, one that had been there long enough to be rich, and one that arrived shortly and soon-to-be rich. There was an extended journey via train and ferry to Minnesota, and more loss and disappointment, before reaching the new land that Oskar would be calling home.
While The Emigrants is about the physical journey, The New Land would be about the settling, where films of “immigration” may touch upon on: a psychological change of identity, in this case, from Swedish to American. There are no other film that goes as deep as Jan Troell did in The New Land. Unlike immigration in the 20th century, Oskar and his group had to build their settlement basically from zero. Constructing their own house from scratch, establishing relationship to other existing community, both the English-speaking “friendly” one and the potentially “hostile” native Indians. Many American historical elements were incorporated into the family drama: the gold rush in California, the Civil War between North and South, the attack from the Indians and their subsequent punishment.
Robert, a diligent learner who self-learned English from book during the voyage, was arguably a dreamer. He did not have the same family burden as his brother Oskar, and he was young and ambitious. He persuaded Arvid as a companion in his search of gold. Jan Troell did not use parallel story-telling, instead we only learnt Robert’s story after he showed up years later, in his dreamy flashbacks and recalls. There were montage sequence and cross-cutting, sometimes without the sound of dialogue but fast-paced drum beats only. From Robert, the deadly side of the America was shown: people dying from hunger, yellow fever or poisonous water in the desert. The tinnitus, a complication Robert got by the repeated beatings in Sweden, haunted him till the end, a symbolic suffering from the past, hearing sea roar after the voyage, or Arvid’s cry after his demise. Eddie Axberg, being the central protagonist in Here’s Your Life, carried the same kind of internal growth that jumped from childhood directly to adulthood in the character of Robert. In the end, only disappointment to life accompanied Robert to his grave.
On the other hand, Oskar family continued to grow in size. A first America-born baby signified the beginning of their firm root to the American soil. A change in identity began with the change of language and culture. Children were learning English in school, Swedish terms were gradually forgotten by Oskar as Kristina complained. Only Kristina, as stubborn as it may seem, was keeping the dual identity till the end. Remembering your ancestors history and culture is probably as important as assimilating into the new environment. Karl Oskar even volunteered to enlist for the civil war to fight the “slaves owners”. The film subtly brings forth the underlining black slavery situation by two occasions of black slaves on chains. Whereas the conflict with the natives took a center stage in the later part of the film, offering one of the most brutal and horrific murder scene in the entire saga. Jan Troell provided a poetically beautiful and sad scene when the tribe of Indians were rounded up and hung, once again remaining is the blood shed in the history of America.
Above all, The Emigrants and The New Land are the family saga of Oskar and Kristina, a life long relationship of husband and wife. Max von Sydow and Liv Ullmann had been acting husband and wife for Bergman’s film in Hour of the Wolf (1968) and Shame (1968). Therefore they radiated a genuine intimacy and understanding from the beginning of the film, as well as a sense of familiarity if the audience knew them well beforehand. When one of them was moribund, Jan Troell handled with nostalgic sentiment and conveyed a fullness of life. A life that, even though with regrets and sadness, is richful and earnest. After the film ends, I can’t help but think of my ancestors, what would their stories be. My father “moved” from China to then-British-colony Hong Kong for the better living of his family, and it turns out well at least for the time being before China engulfed my city. How about all the refugees escaping from the Syrian Civil War? They are the emigrants finding their new land, but could they claim the new land to be their own as easily as Oskar? Definitely no. And they have more stories to be told. The Emigrants and The New Land are the films of a long passed history, but the truth is we are not so different now than the past, these two films would be the best reminder.