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The New Land

The New Land(1973)

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teaser The New Land (1973)

The definitive cinematic portrayal of the Swedish-American immigrant experience, this film is the second half of a two-film series following The Emigrants (1971), the story of the difficult journey of married Karl (Max von Sydow) and Kristina Nilsson (Liv Ullmann). The ambitious project was adapted from a series of four novels published between 1949 and 1959 by renowned novelist, historian, and playwright Vilhelm Moberg, who was reticent to let anyone adapt them until he saw director Jan Troell's masterful 1966 film, Here Is Your Life (an adaptation of a book by the great Swedish writer, Eyvind Johnson). Tragically, Moberg (the descendant of several generations of Swedish military) would commit suicide by drowning the same year The New Land opened in America in October of 1973.

Ironically, Troell hadn't read the much-loved novels when the job came his way and only decided to undertake this, his first color films, while stumbling on an inspiring passage in the third book. The difficult task of streamlining four books into two films (albeit lengthy and highly rewarding ones) was undertaken with Troell's regular producer, Bengt Forslund, who also co-wrote the screenplay. Both men realized they had found their Kristina during a preview screening of Ingmar Bergman's Hour of the Wolf (1968), while Von Sydow, firmly established as Sweden's most famous international actor, would be the most logical choice as Karl. The casting of the Norwegian Ullmann caused a minor protest when it was first announced, but her suitability for the role soon silenced any doubters.

Picking up where The Emigrants left off, this second half of the Nilsson family story is derived from the third and fourth of Moberg's novels in the series, The Settlers and The Last Letter Home. The process of making both films took over a year with the cast, particularly its two leads, spending much time performing the manual labor their characters undertake in the film itself. Incredibly, Troell not only directed the film but also photographed, edited, and co-wrote it as well. Despite spending several weeks location scouting in the United States, only a small portion of the film ended up being shot there, enough to convey the idea of an American landscape but the bulk still shot in Sweden.

Troell's film was first released in its home country in February of 1972, with its U.S. release the following year coming courtesy of Warner Bros. who issued it primarily in an English-dubbed version (in keeping with its companion film). That didn't prove to be the end of its transformations, as it was also prepared in a four-episode version for Swedish television as well as a radically different American version for an ABC airing as The Emigrant Saga, in which it was recut, Godfather-style, with the prior film to create one long epic that could be interrupted by commercials.

Both films received great acclaim upon their release, with this one earning an Academy Award nomination for Foreign Language Film as Sweden's official entry. Due to the peculiar vagaries of Academy qualifications at the time (which would be phased out by the end of the decade), foreign language films qualified for nominations in the year of their release in their native country but could enter other categories the following year; that led to the unique occurrence of The Emigrants, which had been up for Foreign Language Film a year earlier, suddenly nominated again a year later for Best Picture, Best Actress, and Adapted Screenplay. Neither film ended up taking any statuettes home, but the films' popularity led to the creation of a single-season ABC TV series, The New Land, featuring a young Bonnie Bedelia and Kurt Russell as well as a John Denver theme song. The novels were later adapted as a 1995 stage musical in Sweden by ABBA's Bjrn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson as Kristina frn Duvemla, later mounted more turbulently in English as Kristina. Despite the high esteem in which the films remained held, they were withheld from English-speaking viewers on home video in any format until 2016, when The Criterion Collection issued them as separate sets on Blu-ray and DVD, finally returning a crucial cinematic portrait of both Sweden and the United States back to the general public.

By Nathaniel Thompson

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