Thursday 26 November 2020

The Emigrants (Utvandrarna) (1971)



The second 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 miniseries.

The first 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.

Arriving in Minnesota there may not be much there but potential, and it is with this promise this first half of the story ends.

This is 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.

A thought 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.

About a 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.

“Utvandrarna” 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…



  1. Such a nice review. Just imagine, after all the hardship, coming to a place with land for the taking where you will be the master of your fate (unless fate masters you). Entirely on and with your own, being part of a settling a wilderness.

    I've got to get to The New Land soon as well. The length keeps putting me off even though I sort of know it will not be a problem once I get into it.

    1. Thank you, Bea. There is indeed some pathos to the story, you can see the hope in Karl Oskar's face when he marks the trees in the end.
      3 hours is a long running time and maybe too much in one sitting, but it is definitely worth it.