Directed by Jan Troell
Screenplay by Jan Troell and Bengt Forslund, based upon the novels “The Emigrants” and “Unto A Good Land” by Vilhelm Moberg
Starring Max Von Sydow, Liv Ullmann, Eddie Axberg, Pierre Lindstedt, Allan Edwall and Monica Zetterlund
There is no way I would have ever seen The Emigrants if not for this project. Partially that’s because I’m not super-into Swedish film in general – I do enjoy a handful of Bergman films, including The Virgin Spring, but by no means am I ‘into’ Swedish films. But also it’s because The Emigrants just happens to be a Swedish film that’s 190 minutes long.
Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against long films. After all, Gone With The Wind is almost 240 minutes long and it’s a top-10 for me. Plus, I’m down for foreign films. Another top-10 of mine? Aguirre, The Wrath of God. It’s just that when those two things intersect – extreme length and reading – it makes even the best movie a bit of a tough sit.
But, thanks to the strictures of this project – write on a Best Picture loser I haven’t seen before from a given year – I was left with no choice but to get after The Emigrants. After all, it’s co-nominees were The Godfather, which I wrote about for The Best Picture Project; Cabaret, which I’ve seen too many times to count; Deliverance, which I’ve seen a couple times and never really got a feel for; and Sounder, which I saw in my 9th grade English class about a thousand years ago. Because The Emigrants was the only one of the film Best Picture nominees I hadn’t seen, here I am.
The interesting thing about The Emigrants is when I encounter a film like this, from a director I have no history with, it inevitably leads me down a Wikipedia wormhole. It’s there I take a quick look at the careers of it’s stars, writers, and directors. Which led me to realize The Emigrants director Jan Troell, was apparently something like the third pillar of Swedish cinema – there’s him, Ingmar Bergman, and a man name Bo Widerberg. Of those three, I’ve seen some Bergman, heard about Troell, and had no idea who the hell Bo Widerberg was.
The lesson here? Swedish film is more than just Ingmar Bergman and no matter how well-read – or watched – we may think we are, our film educations are never as complete as they could be.
What’s It About?
Life on the farm in mid-1840’s Sweden is hard. Real hard. If it isn’t too much rain trying to kill by washing away crops and seed, it’s not enough rain. Or fire. Or any other things. Just about every time you turn around the threat of starvation or death is waiting to say hello. To get away from it, Karl Olaf (von Sydow) decides to move his family to America in search of greener pastures, which is a fraught journey in itself.
Is It Good?
On the whole, The Emigrants is a quiet film, told in three distinct portions. Not only distinct in setting, but in the style of the telling. Those sections:
- Day-to-day life on the farm.
- The voyage from Sweden to America.
- Travelling overland to find some land to farm.
In each, the overall sensibilities are the same. The film generally stays clear of histrionics and Capital-D drama, preferring to move ahead in a subdued manner. Instead of obviousness and being on-the-nose in telling the story, it is indirect and only doles out details when it feels like it, and mostly as an aside. In all, it behaves as if the tone is more important than the plot. Which is appropriate, given the story requires no plot. After all, a movie about a family beaten down by the farm who decide to leave the country to find greener pastures, doesn’t need a beat-sheet to be kept on track. And even if it did, the film wouldn’t hit any of the beats. For instance, most movies throw down the inciting incident in act 1, or within the first 10 or 15 minutes of screen time. By contrast, the inciting incident of The Emigrants comes nearly 1 hour into the film – it’s an important death – and when it does occur, the story is a bit languid about pushing things forward from there.
This is the aesthetic – measured and meandering.
To be fair, this does not mean the film is unfocused, because it definitely has a focus. It’s just not going to force things for the sake of moving things along.
And the film is not without virtues. After all, each section is incredibly visually beautiful. As an example, the first section of the film – on the farm – is so effective at finding the beauty in dirt, grime and hardship that you almost forget that lurking just underneath all beautiful things is the threat of death.
Beyond that, the form of the film is adeptly used to emphasize the themes of the film. Specifically, consider how Troell manages the concept of time. Whereas the first section – on the farm – covers approximately 6 years of time in an hour, the second section uses the same amount of time to cover ten weeks. In this way we are led to the conclusion that the hardships spread over six years, when packed into ten weeks can be devastating. And it is, with death and hardness at every step. Moreover, he shoots the second section in closeups and claustrophobically, doubling-down on the hardships of the travel by making them inescapable. After all, if the characters can’t escape the frame of the camera, we are left to feel how trapped they are by the ship.
What is most-impressive about the film, though, is that Troell was basically operating as a one-man-band. Not only did he direct the movie, but he shot it, edited it, and co-wrote it, too. In every way, the film you see on screen is his decision and represents exactly what he wants to represent.
It is the purest example of the auteur film if ever there was one.
All that said, there is this: The Emigrants is really too long.
At certain points, the movie just felt endless. Purposefully repetitive and purposefully endless. As if intent on withholding any sort of escape or happy ending. Which I can admire, even at the same time I grew increasing annoyed with it.
And yet, I liked the film, I really did. The acting was all superb and natural – von Sydow and Liv Ullmann are great – and the cinematography was always on-point. But this is not a movie to consume at once, it must be eaten in pieces. My advice? Break it into thirds over three nights. Night 1 – the Farm. Night 2 – the boat. Night 3 – America. That way, you’re only committed to about an hour in any given sitting and, even if some parts really drag, you know you’re not far from your next break.
For a 3 hour movie, in Swedish, depicting the harships of life, there are actually some very striking comedic moments in the film. And there should be. After all, at 3 hours long if they don’t have time for a couple jokes now and then, they’re not doing it right.
- When the local sheriff comes to shut down an unauthorized prayer meeting at a man’s home, one of the men the sheriff brings along starts to give shit to the local prostitute for being present at the meeting. But the prostitute isn’t there to be put down and so immediately gives back as good as she got, and shuts down the self-righteous prick cold.
- The other is on the ship to America, when a lice outbreak hits. As they’re dealing with it, one of the passengers jokes that, “Things must be pretty bad in old Sweden when even the lice emigrate to America.” I genuinely laughed out loud at that.
You’re Never Too Old To Learn Something
At once point, two characters in the film get into an argument over how long the journey is in America – one had said it was 250 miles, but the other, a woman, hears it’s actually 1500 miles. No surprise, she’s pissed.
How is the argument resolved? Turns out they’re both right.
You see, Swedish miles at the time were not the same length as English miles. That is, a Swedish mile was apparently 10k long, while an English mile was just 1/6th that. This is how 250 miles, and 1500 miles, can be the same thing.
The Emigrants was nominated for Foreign Language Film in 1971, ultimately losing to Vittorio De Sica’s The Garden of the Finzi Continis. Because it was not generally released in the United States until 1972, it was eligible for, and nominated for, Best Picture 1972, which it lost to The Godfather. That same year it’s sequel, The New Land was also in the running for Best Foreign Language Film, ultimately losing to Luis Bunuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. All in all, it was a pretty good run for Jan Troell, even if he lost everything he was nominated for.
Better Than Best?
Give me a break — Best Picture 1972 was The Godfather. And even if I prefer something like Cabaret to The Godfather, both are head and shoulders better than The Emigrants.
A Note On Versions
In it’s original Swedish release, The Emigrants ran 190 minutes. In it’s original American release, it was cut to 150 minutes.  For this series, I saw the 190-minute version from the Criterion Collection.
See the rest of the Also Rans Project here.
 Although ‘enjoy’ is probably the wrong word to use for The Virgin Spring.
 Spare me the moralizing on the race and sexism issue in it – I hear them, and they are legit concerns, but I can’t help appreciating it just the same.
 I also like, amongst others, Fitzcaraldo, Herzog’s Nosferatu, Jules et Jim, The Story of Adele H., and The Lives of Others.
 Which is basically the point of doing a project like this in the first place.
 It was nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress for Liv Ullmann, and Best Adapted Screenplay.