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The Emigrants
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The Emigrants

Jan Troell had made only two previous features when he started work on The Emigrants (1971), the first half of an epic drama that he completed with The New Land a year later. But he was already an auteur in the fullest sense of the term. Although both The Emigrants and The New Land are based on a four-part literary saga by Vilhelm Moberg, detailing the experiences of a Swedish family that emigrates to the United States in the middle of the nineteenth century, Troell cowrote the screenplays, took over the cinematography soon after The Emigrants started shooting, and did the editing as well.

For the first few days of shooting, Troell said later, he tried to behave like an ordinary director, sitting near the camera instead of personally operating it. This made him feel too detached from the action, though, preventing him from capturing his moment-to-moment responses. During some of the more ambitious scenes he was willing to deploy one or two additional cameras, but when possible he liked having the camera on his own shoulder so he could improvise as the spirit moved him. That's how he proceeded for almost the whole shoot.

The Emigrants begins on a sadly unfertile bit of farmland, where farmer Karl Oskar Nillson and his wife Kristina are struggling to support themselves and their children despite a never-ending onslaught of problems caused by chronic drought, the rocky soil endemic to southern Sweden, and one bad harvest after another. Daunting challenges confront some of their relatives, too. Karl Oskar's brother Robert works for a more prosperous farmer named Aron, but Robert is a dreamer and a bit of a slacker, and Aron's idea of discipline is hitting the young man hard enough to cause permanent injury. Difficulties also beset Kristina's uncle Danjel, a preacher whose democratic views and unorthodox theology bring severe legal penalties down on him. These hardships have harsh consequences. Kristina is so beaten down by her household's chronic poverty that she begs Karl Oskar to stop having sex with her, but before long she's pregnant again. Hunger gets so bad that their oldest daughter dies from eating bad food, and lightning sets their barn on fire.

Just when it seems no hope is left, however, Robert reveals that he has a secret plan to embark for America, and it turns out that Karl Oskar has been mulling over the same idea. Selling off whatever he can to raise money for the trip, Karl Oskar leaves his miserable farm in the hands of his aging parents and heads for the New World with the rest of the family, joined by Robert's friend, the slow-witted Arvid, and members of Danjel's religious flock.

In keeping with its title, The Emigrants focuses on the process of traveling to a fresh homeland, leaving the future of the settlers to the 1972 sequel. Troell shows the characters' motivations for leaving home, their preparations for the journey, their long and difficult voyage across the sea, and their arrival at a destination where everything from the language to the geography is unfamiliar and somewhat scary. That's a lot of material for a single film - even a long one like this, running more than three hours - so Troell decided to concentrate on the most important incidents, decisions, and turning points, giving the story an episodic structure and letting viewers imagine the in-between moments for themselves.

The saddest events take place in the first part of the movie, when Karl Oskar and Kristina undergo terrible setbacks and a swat from Aron inflicts lasting damage on Robert's hearing. By contrast, the story's last scenes are tentatively optimistic about the family's prospects in Minnesota, a territory so open that settlers can obtain land just by chopping their claim into the bark of a tree. The most intensely dramatic sequences are in the central portion, when the Atlantic crossing brings tremendous privation to everyone, including Kristina, whose ordeals range from an infestation of lice to a hemorrhage that almost kills her. And she's more fortunate than those who don't make it to America at all. The scenes on the deck of the Charlotta were filmed on a real oceangoing ship, and the scenes below decks were filmed on a studio set mounted on a cradle that stagehands rocked to mimic the movement of a vessel at sea.

Moberg was reluctant to have his four-volume series of "documentary novels" adapted for the screen, but he'd been impressed with Troell's first picture, the 1966 drama Here Is Your Life, so he was receptive when producer Bengt Forslund came to him with a proposal suggesting Troell as the director. Moberg appreciated Troell's willingness to follow the novels closely, right down to the positions of characters within a room, and Troell appreciated Moberg's willingness to stay largely silent once the film went into production. Svensk Filmindustri gave Troell the largest budget for any Swedish production to that time, and this paid high dividends when audiences flocked to the finished product on both sides of the Atlantic.

Everyone was pleased with the casting. Max von Sydow already had several Hollywood credits in addition to the Ingmar Bergman films that had made him a star, and Liv Ullmann had worked with von Sydow in three Bergman classics - Shame and Hour of the Wolf (both 1968) and The Passion of Anna (1969) - in the early years of her fine career as an actress and director. As a Norwegian in a Swedish-speaking film, Ullmann was a slightly unconventional choice for The Emigrants, but her job was made easier when Troell decided that all the principal actors should adopt a southern Swedish dialect, giving the rhythms of the dialogue more weight than niceties of pronunciation. Other standouts in the cast include the pop and jazz singer Monica Zetterlund as Ulrika, a former prostitute reformed by Danjel's teachings, and Eddie Axberg, a multitalented professional who played the important role of Robert while also working on the movie's sound crew, pivoting between the creative and technical sides of the production.

Although he hoped to film the American portion of the story in real American settings, practical considerations sent Troell back to Sweden for much of the American material, and the Minnesota scenes of The Emigrants combine shots taken in both countries. Yet the landscapes look just right, and the conclusion of The Emigrants is very effective at giving the narrative a satisfying finale while leaving the way open for the second half of the saga, which premiered less than a year later. The Emigrants earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language film in 1972, and in 1973 it was nominated for Best Picture - only the third foreign-language film ever to get that nomination - along with nods to Ullmann for Best Actress, Troell for Best Director, and Troell and Forslund for Best Adapted Screenplay. The movie didn't take home any statuettes on Oscar night, but the nominations speak for themselves, and Ullmann has named Kristina as her all-time favorite role. It's easy to see why.

Director: Jan Troell
Producer: Bengt Forslund
Screenplay: Bengt Forslund, Jan Troell; based on Vilhelm Moberg's novels
Cinematographer: Jan Troell
Film Editing: Jan Troell
Art Direction: P.A. Lundgren
Music: Erik Nordgren
With: Max von Sydow (Karl Oskar Nillson), Liv Ullmann (Kristina Nillson), Eddie Axberg (Robert), Svenolof Bern (Nils), Aina Alfredsson (Märta0), Allan Edwall (Danjel), Monica Zetterlund (Ulrika), Pierre Lindstedt (Arvid), Hans Alfredson (Jonas Petter)
Color-191m.

by David Sterritt

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