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The Emigrants; The New Land, Blu-ray (1971-72/2016)

A terrific pair of Jan Troell films from 1971 & ’72, with gorgeous restoration and fascinating extras.

The Emigrants; The New Land, Blu-ray (1971-72/2016)

Director: Jan Troell
Cast: Max von Sydow, Liv Ullmann, Eddie Axberg
Studio: Swedish Film Industry/Warner Bros./ The Criterion Collection 796/797 (2/9/16) [2 discs]
Video: 1.66:1 for 16:9 wide screen, 1080p HD color
Audio: Swedish PCM mono
Subtitles: English
Extras: New intro by theater/film critic John Simon, New conversation with film scholar Peter Cowie and Jan Troell, New Liv Ullmann interview, To Paint with Pictures – an hour-long 2005 documentary on making of the film, Trailers, Illus. booklet with essay by critic Terrence Rafferty.
Lengths: Emigrants: 191 min.; New Land: 202 min.
Ratings: *****, ****

B0184DLI1Y This is a long couple of films: over six and half hours total plus the hour-long documentary. Vilhelm Moberg, upon whose novels the two films are based, considered his original four volumes a single work. Many Swedes had already read the novels about the journey to America in 1850. The fact that Troell keeps up interest during the long story, aided by the terrific acting of the youngish Ullmann and von Sydow, makes this a simply wonderful survey of human drama on the screen.

This Criterion release is considered long overdue. Although both von Sydow and Ullmann are conversant in English, there were only cheesily-dubbed versions on VHS and nothing like this magnificent set for English-speaking viewers. The honesty and brilliance of both films make them among the top features ever made. It was only due to the year of The Godfather that The Emigrants failed to get the Oscar for best film.

There are really three parts to the long story: The very hard life trying to farm in Sweden and the decision to go to America, the grueling, generally awful passage on the sailing ship – during which several people die, and the journey to and final settlement in Minnesota, where the immigrants are somewhat rewarded for their continual hard work. There is also the religious persecution, which Danyel, a close relative and pastor, experiences due to not fitting into the prevailing Lutheran religious standards. There are plenty of challenges in the New World, however. The newcomers have culture shock (the wife never learns to speak English, for example), and their hardships include the Civil War and a violent uprising of the formerly peaceful Sioux Indians around them.  Karl Oscar’s younger brother goes looking for gold in California and has a horrific time of it, eventually returning but dying quite young.

Troell uses a combination of long shots – some of which go on much longer than we are used to – and telling closeups, especially of hands.  The cinemtography of the environments is gorgeous. Although the film had the largest budget of any Swedish film up to that time, there wasn’t enough to actually shoot the Minnesota portion there, so they found an area in Sweden to stand in for Minnesota.  There was controversy about Liv Ullman’s being starred in the film because she is Norwegian and didn’t speak perfect Swedish, but she is amazing in her role.

—John Sunier

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