This Saturday's ASUW film program is something very special: Jan Troell's "The Emigrants" and "The New Land"—an unglossed, beautifully done look at a Swedish community's emigration to America.
And it is quite a story: the tales of how the emigrants left everything they had, searching for a nirvana they heard about called America, and then, when arriving, found the stories were stories and that their struggles had to continue...as there was no way back. (These stories) have always had a special place in the history of film, especially American film. Audiences have long taken an interest in the struggles of their forebears—one of the reasons why ABC's "Roots" has gone through the ratings roof this week. One can possibly attribute this to a kind of lazy pride, clutching the courage and struggles of our ancestors to ourselves. And if so, so what? We're all entitled to a little pride in their accomplishments. It might provide the springboard for some equally courageous acts in our lives. And this pride in the past struggles reaches across racial/religious lines: we can feel proud at the struggle of other peoples' against their misfortunes. Hence, the great popularity displayed by "Roots" this week.
What about the movie, huh?)**
Oh...yeah. Jan Troell's treatment of the sometimes gentle, sometimes violent story of The Emigrants is to treat it gently, "matter-of-factly." He has compassion for his community, but that compassion will not allow him to prevent the cruelties of the journey, the country and the people of America. And there is a poetry in this style. Stanley Kubrick found it in 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Barry Lyndon, and Troell has it throughout The Emigrants and The New Land, with only one exception in the latter.
The film starts in Sweden as Karl-Oskar Nillsson is pressured by family needs to take a wife and we are presented with Kristina. It is Liv Ullmann and her life previous to the marriage to Karl-Oskar is presented to us in a brief, languorous series of shots that entail an entire life of child-like freedom—sheltered, playful and entirely composed of little incidents, little insignificant moments, that thoroughly define her character and will stay with us throughout both movies as we see her struggle and grow old too early with her husband. Those moments remained in my mind through the films, and I saw them a year apart.
Those few moments of insignificance that tell the story are what define Troell's style of story-telling. It means that the actors are put under a great strain to present authentic portraits of people, and the cast led by Max von Sydow and Ullmann come through with a total feeling of lived-in performances. You believe every one of the actors are who they are, that the relationships are real, (and) they are a community. There's not a false moment there in a film that is totally composed of moments suspended in time.
I'm not going to go through a list of favorite moments—there are too many that they are a jumble in my mind. but there is one: Karl-Oskar hacking his way through foliage—surveying—walking through this alien country. He pauses, takes his axe and hacks into a tree. He writes his name on the un-barked portion and then, in a way summarizing the whole of what has gone before, lies under the tree and tips his hat over his eyes, his back supported by the tree—his land. It's a scene of total satisfaction. And you felt that satisfaction with him because you've been through it with him. That scene ends The Emigrants and begins The New Land and I envy anyone who enters 130 Kane Saturday night and can experience—in one sitting—this epic that is only small in scale.
Broadcast on KCMU-FM on January 28-29th, 1977
Thirty-two years on, if you mention The Emigrants to me, that scene is the one that pops up—of Max Von Sydow silently lying under the tree, his hat over his eyes, in a moment of peace and solitude that it has taken an entire movie to achieve. It is remembered fondly. The Emigrants was nominated for four Academy Awards including Best Picture and it's hard to imagine it making its way through the rabble in this day and age to become one of The Five. It's narrative structure (what I was painfully trying to explain here) is supported by its images, rather than a straight-ahead narration. The camera sits back and observes, making no editorial comment, picking up telling details by accident as if it was a documentary—a documentary where the light is just right and everything is extremely picturesque.
But it's worth it, if only to see von Sydow and Ullmann—two of Ingmar Bergman's stökk company—in a couple of their best roles. And there are benefits in seeing a good story well-told.
*** "About Bloody Time"