This monumental mid-nineteenth-century epic from Jan Troell (Here Is Your Life) charts, over the course of two films, a poor Swedish farming family’s voyage to America and their efforts to put down roots in this beautiful but forbidding new world. Movie legends Max Von Sydow (The Seventh Seal) and Liv Ullmann (Persona) give remarkably authentic performances as Karl-Oskar and Kristina, a couple who meet with one physical and emotional trial after another on their arduous journey. The precise, minute detail with which Troell depicts the couple’s story—which is also the story of countless other people who sought better lives across the Atlantic—is a wonder to behold. Engrossing every step of the way, the duo of The Emigrants and The New Land makes for perhaps the greatest screen drama about the settling of America.
“Americans are the most honest and upright people in the world.”
Filmed a year apart, Swedish director Jan Troell’s two film epic should be watched, and considered, as one singular film. Lovingly packaged together by The Criterion Collection, ‘The Emigrants’ and ‘The New Land’ tell the story of the Nilsson family and their journey to Minnesota escaping famine and persecution in 1850’s Sweden. Even though this story follows 19th century Swedes, it could be any immigrant family hoping and praying for greener pastures. Troell acts as director, editor, and cinematographer on both films. The result is a truly authentic saga filled with subtle details and a patient beauty.
The films opens on a bleak pastoral setting with farmers laboring in their field. The quiet stillness of the farm yields nothing when a man rolls a boulder on himself. The film shows no mercy, no crescendo or cut, just the loneliness of isolation. It’s quite clear that the film is taking it’s time to show us every excruciating detail. Troell lets the camera linger on the boulder long enough for the viewer to begin feeling a sting in their leg. This longing attention to minute details will become the signature of Troell’s epic.
We are introduced to Karl Oskar (Max Von Sydow), his wife Kristina (Liv Ullmann), and their children. Kristina’s introductory POV shots while swinging from a tree give us an instant glimpse into her attitude on life. Karl does not share such an outlook. Running the farm has become difficult with poor soil and low crop yields. Sydow carries Karl’s burden across his brow in every expression the character produces. A simply brilliant performance. Throughout every insufferable tragedy that befalls his family, Karl presses on carrying the load like the strained animals that plow his rocky fields. As the film progresses we are introduced to more members of the family including Karl’s younger brother Robert and Kristina’s uncle Danjel.
Though this film is centered on the motivations of Karl and Kristina, it is truly Robert and Danjel that inspire the family to seek solace in a foreign land. Suffering at the violent hands of servitude, Robert despises his life as a farmhand and dreams of sailing to America. Danjel’s faith is constantly under scrutiny as he is governed by hands of authority that are held in the same regard as God himself. Once Danjel is banished from his religious practice he receives a holy message to emigrate to America. With Robert and Danjel seeking help from Karl and Kristina to realize their dreams, the family begins preparing for their journey to America.
Atop their horse drawn wagon leaving home, Kristina looks back. Surrounded by all her possessions and children her expression is one of surreal acceptance. The tiny farmhouse, the place they’ve called home, pulls away from them. The last frame could be a painting on any immigrant’s wall recalling that original place their ancestors called home. Conditions aboard the ship are far from the comforts of home. Karl exclaims “The beasts in my barn have more room!” For the Nilsson family the size of their sleeping berths should be the least of their worries.
Troell’s photography continues to focus on simple shots that convey deep meanings. A pause on Karl’s hand as he pushes a plow or the glimmer of sunlight on ocean waves as the ship cuts effortlessly through the sea is presented beautifully. It’s these well crafted moments in time that allow the viewer to see these single steps placed within this great journey. Once in America the film takes on a nature documentary-style focus on the new landscape. When not shooting the action Troell takes great pride in establishing our story’s setting.
Normally it would be a “spoiler-alert” to offer the information that the Nilsson family make landfall in America. However, ‘The New Land’ continues the story of our trailblazing family right where we left off. On the shore of Lake Superior Karl happily plots out his homestead and begins shaping a new life for his family. The struggles here are quite different from those imposed upon him in Sweden. A new language and confusing customs complicate even the simplest of tasks such as receiving a letter from home. Seeing opportunity posted on a bulletin board, Robert heads west to strike it rich in the gold fields. Danjel revels in his newfound religious freedoms. Even in a new land Karl and Kristina are still tested in frightening ways. Their new country is tearing itself apart in civil war and the Native Americans are rising up against the government and it’s new homesteaders.
‘The Emigrants’ and ‘The New Land’ are two beautiful films that show humanity at it’s best and worst. This incredible journey from Sweden to Minnesota is filled with so many characters, secrets, tragedies, and moments of sheer bliss that it cannot be contained in a single review! Every nuanced moment from Karl’s grieving eyes to Kristina’s pleas to God are captured with a reverence to all people seeking to make their way to greener pastures and better lives.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
‘The Emigrants’ and ‘The New Land’ arrive on Region A Blu-ray thanks to The Criterion Collection. The films are pressed individually onto BD50 discs housed together in a clear case with a booklet with an essay by critic Terrence Rafferty. The disc for 'The Emigrants' opens to static image of Kristina with slide out menu options on the right hand side. For 'The New Land' the disc shows an image of Karl Oskar with slide out menu options on the right as well. Each disc's opening menus contain a quiet passage of the musical score that quickly fades away. English subtitles are the only subtitle option on both discs.
The Blu-ray presentation for ‘The Emigrants’ and ‘The New Land’ is a crisp 1080p HD transfer with an aspect ratio of 1.66:1. These films are absolutely stunning to look at from start to finish! At times the films take on a watercolor painting aesthetic that draws your eye across the entire screen. Retaining a rich film-like transfer, Criterion allowed these films to breathe through their color palettes without sacrificing contrast or texture. There is minimal grain except during some dark interior shots on ‘The Emigrants’ when it becomes quite present for a few frames.
Both films are presented in their original uncompressed mono soundtracks. The Swedish dialogue is clear and clean throughout both features. The minimal scoring used in the films never tips the balance with the dialogue but provides a pleasant, if delicate, balance. Other than a few moments in ‘The New Land’ did this reviewer feel that a broader sound would have improved the experience. Some audiences will relish the original Swedish dialogue provided in this set. Previous home video versions had supplied an awful English dub that dissatisfied fans for years.
To Paint With Pictures (HD 56:56) (DD Mono) A making-of documentary from 2005 featuring archival footage from both films and interviews from the cast and crew. Those interested in the behind-the-scenes stories as well as seeing on-set footage should check out this feature. Really fascinating stuff.
Introduction by John Simon (HD 7:27) (DD Mono) Produced by The Criterion Collection in 2015, film critic John Simon details in very simple terms how Troell’s masterpiece stands out in the fabric of cinema. Scenes from the film are played over his narration that solidify his statements about the films. This could be a short class on Troell’s techniques and vision.
Jan Troell (HD 35:43) (DD Mono) An interview with the director Jan Troell by film scholar Peter Cowie. Covering everything from stylistic choices to specific camera settings this featurette offers a little bit for everyone. Those wanting to hear about Troell’s motivations and inspirations for creating such an epic saga should watch this well produced interview.
Liv Ullmann: Playing Kristina (HD 24:06) (DD Mono) An interview with Liv Ullmann on the role that changed her life and the films that brought her into the world’s spotlight. While utilizing archival photos and behind-the-scenes footage Liv speaks lovingly about her role as Kristina throughout the interview. Produced and filmed by The Criterion Collection in 2015.
-The New Land
Under other circumstances watching a 7 hour film would test anyone’s resolve, however Troell’s patience with the narrative makes this an equally breathtaking and heartbreaking marathon. His attention to even the most ineloquent tasks is astounding! ‘The Emigrants’ is arguably the slower of the two films because of the necessary exposition, but once the story has grabbed you it never lets go. I have never seen a film illustrate the collision of hope and reality so vividly. With a gorgeous transfer and a bevy of special features, The Criterion Collection has done justice to an epic that should be considered in the same regard as another immigrant saga, The Godfather. Highly Recommended.