A ‘historical epic’ about a Swedish family emigrating to the States, told unhurriedly in the most intimate and natural of ways.
Dir. Jan Troell
1971 | Sweden | Drama | 191 mins | 1.66: 1 | Swedish
Not rated (likely to be PG13 for some mature themes)
Cast: Max von Sydow, Liv Ullmann, Eddie Axberg
Plot: In the middle of the 19th century, a family lives in a small rural village in southern Sweden. However, the small size of their land, the infertile soil, and some bad harvests make it tough.
Awards: Nom. for 5 Oscars – Best Picture, Best Foreign Language Film, Best Director, Best Leading Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay
Source: Svensk Filmindustri
Subject Matter: Moderate
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Audience Type: Slightly Arthouse
(Reviewed on Criterion Blu-ray)
Finally, an early Jan Troell film that I really, really like, after what I felt was a miss for me with his epic debut feature, Here Is Your Life (1966), a beautiful film that I somewhat found difficult to like or enjoy. Here in The Emigrants, he has fashioned a two-parter film (the follow-up being 1972’s The New Land) that has a combined running time of more than six hours.
In true ‘historical epic’ fashion, The Emigrants charts the life of a Swedish family struggling in their native land, which leads them to make the biggest decision of their lives: to emigrate somewhere. Maybe the States, which they have heard so much about—well, that’s where the fields promise bountiful returns; where slaves are treated much better (really?); and where one could work as he shall please. It might be hearsay, but hope is a beautiful thing.
“The Emigrants” is the first movie to be nominated for Best Picture and Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards, and not win either award.
Hope, in Troell’s film, is rather elusive—the fact that religiosity plays a huge part in these characters’ social routines and psychological make-up tells us that these God-fearing folks desire some kind of karmic certainty, even if they are asked to believe in God’s ways amid uncertain times and desperate conditions.
Two of Sweden’s greatest stars, Liv Ullmann and Max von Sydow, play Kristina and Karl respectively, a couple with a number of young children. Working to grow food to survive and earn enough to clear debts and make ends meet, they are at the mercy of the weather and authority. The Emigrants is split into two halves with a short intermission. The first half charts their pastoral lives and community, whilst the second half, puts them on a ship across the formidable Atlantic Ocean in a long and arduous journey.
Stanley Kubrick was a deep admirer of the film, and tried to call director Jan Troell to discuss the film. Troell thought it was a prank call and hung up.
Troell is a master of capturing the minutiae of daily life (he’s even the film’s cinematographer). He is not interested in quick cuts, but a range of long dynamic and static shots that bring the astonishing landscapes to the fore; at the same time, he doesn’t lose sight of human emotions and relational dynamics. Ullmann’s performance is especially nuanced and effective—her face speaks a thousand words.
One of the few European films of that time to garner a more than sizable American distribution, and was even nominated for the Oscars in five major categories (quite a rare feat!), The Emigrants is one of Troell’s defining works.