Nominated for five Academy Awards (one in 1972 and four in 1973), The Emigrants is an epic classic of world cinema. It didn’t win in any of its categories at the Oscars – between them, The Godfather (1972) and Cabaret (1972) took the awards – but its nominations for Best Picture, Best Actress and Best Director show how Jan Troell’s film resonated with mainstream audiences like few foreign-language films have since.
The story of a Swedish family who leave their motherland to find a new home in North America is delicately poised between realism and melodrama. Max Von Sydow, already a big name in Europe after several collaborations with Ingmar Bergman, stars as Karl Oskar who, along with his wife, Kristina (Liv Ullmann), uproots from the inhospitable farmland of his home country and faces death and pestilence for a chance at a better life.
It is a film of dreams, appropriately enough for a lead who had already starred in films as chimeric as The Seventh Seal (1957) and Wild Strawberries (1957). Karl Oskar and his family pore over pictures and newspaper clippings of America and talk about the riches on offer there. His idealistic younger brother, Robert (Eddie Axberg), dreams of finding gold in California, an indulgent fantasy in itself, but one which is made even more absurd by the enormous distance that separates him from that fertile land.
Such dreams may seem unrealistic, but The Emigrants is so powerful because this aspiration to make a better life is a fundamental human instinct, recognisable and easily understandable. That Karl Oskar would risk the life of his family to fulfil this need tells of the bleakness of their circumstances at home.
By far the most harrowing episode of the film, the family’s voyage across the Atlantic Ocean is a claustrophobic, lice-infested nightmare. Karl Oskar, Kristina and their substantial cohort are all packed into bunks that are too small, on a ship which has water running down its walls. If any of their wide-eyed hopefulness remains by this point in their journey, it is soon smothered by the belowdecks stink of brine and maggot-infested meat.
As with everything in The Emigrants, Jan Troell takes his time to describe these circumstances, prolonging the agony of the trip and our own discomfort in witnessing it. The willingness to linger on board the ship emphasises the importance Troell places on the journey. The film is as much about settling as it is about finding where you want to settle in the first place.
Running at over three hours, it is a long film by any standards. Taken with The New Land (1972) – the companion to The Emigrants – the story of Karl Oscar, Kristina and their family runs to nearly seven epic hours. Jan Troell fills out the more dramatic episodes of their emigration with the minutiae of their day-to-day, describing their world to us so articulately that it becomes almost as tangible as our own. Their pastoral life isn’t romanticized. It is a muddy existence, full of aches and uncertainty.
Liv Ullmann deserved her Academy Award nomination but it may have been good fortune that led to her being cast. Ullman’s Norwegian origin meant that her Swedish pronunciation wasn’t entirely natural, so she wasn’t the first choice for the role. It was the author of the source novels, Vilhelm Moburg, who insisted that her accent was passable for the dialect of Småland, the region from which Moburg and his characters originate.
Moburg’s intervention was a fortuitous one, and may have indirectly helped to make the film the masterpiece that it is. For while Karl Oscar must deal with the responsibility of dragging his family halfway around the world, it is Kristina who shoulders much of the burden. The rigour of the journey drains the colour from her face and sinks her eyes deep into their sockets. She is the expressive symbol of the family’s hope, their worry and their love for each other. After watching The Emigrants, she is difficult to forget.
Despite their considerable running times, The Emigrants and The New Land are best watched together. The second film picks up directly after the first, and while there is a sense of closure by the time the credits roll on The Emigrants, the end of The New Land is devastating. Jan Troell manages to pack the history of an entire generation into two films that tell a story full of ambition, pathos, and enduring love.
Original Title: Utvandrarna Country: Sweden Language: Swedish, English Year: 1971 Director: Jan Troell Writers: Bengt Forslund, Jan Troell, Vilhelm Moburg (novels) Starring: Max von Sydow, Liv Ullman, Eddie Axberg Runtime: 191 minutes