off-List movie of 1972 is actually a double feature. I know I am supposed to be
done with 1971, but since I want to watch “The New Land” for 1972, I have to
start with “The Emigrants” (“Utvandrarna”) from 1971. No harms done, though.
This is a great movie.
I spent a
lot of time in the eighties reading through my father’s library. It was a
fairly random collection of books, but I was not particularly critical and
ended up reading most of it. This included a vast epic by Swedish author
Vilhelm Moberg about a group of Swedish peasants in the mid-nineteenth century who,
driven by poverty and misfortune, left their ancestral Småland to cross the
ocean to begin a new life in Minnesota. It made a big impression on me back
then, especially the first volumes, but somehow I completely missed the 71-72
installment, “Utvandrarna” covers the first two books. We meet Karl Oskar (Max
von Sydow) and his wife Kristina (Liv Ullmann), trying to make their farm work.
But this is Småland, the soil is poor and rocky and the outcome uncertain. When
things are good they can barely make ends meet and when misfortune strike…
well, their hole is getting deeper and deeper and finally even Kristina sees no
other way than leaving. We also meet Karl Oskars brother Robert (Eddie Axberg).
Robert is a dreamer, wishing for a different life than that of being a farm
hand, a job he is completely unsuited for. His desire to move away is also
strongly motivated by the sadistic farmer he is indentured to. Finally, we meet
Danjel (Allan Edwall), Kristina’s uncle, a puritan preacher whose religious
activities makes him an enemy of the local clergy. Danjel brings his flock with
him to America, certain that their faith will protect them from all danger.
For these peasants
everything about this journey is new and terrifying. The boat ride is like a
purgatory with illness and death in the crammed and unhealthy quarters below
deck. Danjel is losing his wife and later his infant daughter and their faith
is not enough to protect the flock from seasickness. It is an exercise in humility
for that once confident and proud man.
Minnesota there may not be much there but potential, and it is with this
promise this first half of the story ends.
epic, Swedish style. That means very slow and very moody, but this is also a
story that begs to be told in this manner. The camera likes to dwell on the
scenes, and we get very close to the characters. This makes us feel their
misfortunes so much the harder, but it is also at times difficult not to be a
bit impatient with the movie. I could easily see many modern viewers get bored
by it. It is also a very impressive recreation of the 1840’ies. Everything, cloth,
food, houses, mannerisms are very faithful to the era and it always pleases me
when even the small details are right. Therefore it was also a bit
disappointing to learn that it was all filmed in Sweden, which of course
explains why Minnesota looks this much like a Swedish forest… Then again, maybe
it does, never been there.
that kept coming back to me through the three hour running time was how much
this story resembles that of the migrants today, leaving miserable lives in
Africa or the Middle East to find a new life in Europe. The boat ride could be the
dangerous journey across the Mediterranean in an excuse for a boat, and the
mismatch between the dream of the destination and the harsh reality that meet
them on arrival is also comparable. The major difference I suppose is that
America was considered an open land that had use for the new arrivals. Not
quite so for a goatherder from Somalia.
million Swedes left for America and even though “only” 300.000 Danes went that
way everybody has some distant relative in America. My grandfather’s brother left
in the beginning of the last century for Canada and I remember meeting his grand
children back in my youth, thinking it was magic I had family so far away.
brought back the memories of reading the books. This is a very faithful adaption,
and it is just as fascinating as I remember the story. It is quiet drama, but
life and death drama nonetheless. A big recommendation from me. Soon I will
watch the second part…