In every country there is a book which every schoolchild knows or an author who’s embedded in the fabric of the culture. The Emigrants Suit, written by Wilhelm Moberg, comprises four books (The Emigrants, Unto a Good Land, The Settlers and The Last Letters Home). The novels are classics and considered to be amongst the best examples of Swedish literature. Adapting them to the screen was a daunting task but one Jan Troell was more than a match for. Along with Bengt Forslund, they condensed the tomes into two epic films, The Emigrants and The New Land.
The films tell the story of a group of poor country folk from the province of Småland in Sweden. In over seven hours of considered yet riveting filmmaking, we follow their fortunes all the way to eventually settling in the United States. Set in 1850, there story largely revolves around Karl-Oskar Nilsson (Max von Sydow) and his wife, Kristina Johansdotter (Liv Ullmann). They live on a small farm with their four children, Karl-Oscar’s parents and his wayward younger brother Robert (Eddie Axberg). Despite struggling to make ends meet on the small family farm, they vow to plough on. That changes after their eldest daughter dies due to the side-effects of malnutrition.
Along with Robert, several friends, family and other members of the province, they make the decision to emigrate to the United States. They dream of the promises of fertile land and freedom the new land offers. After an arduous and gruelling voyage, they disembark to find themselves in a strange country with highly limited grasp of the language. The family struggles on to build their new lives, with the perils of the natives and new country to contend with. Meanwhile, Robert tries to make his fortune in the Gold Rush.
To describe the films as extraordinary would be a gross understatement. Whilst contemporaries such as Heimat and All my Countrymen have done similar things to document everyday life, The Emigrants and The New Land is possibly the best example of folk or peasant storytelling. It’s unusual to see the lives of normal people captured in this way. The Emigrants deservedly received Academy Award nominations for Best Film, Best Director, Best Actor (Ullmann) and Best Adapted Screenplay.
The Emigrants and The New Land are arguably the most quintessential films about America in terms of the European migration. The way it’s shot is jaw-dropping, given the financial and technical restriction of the time, and the acting is superb; particularly von Sydow and Ullmann. The story in compelling but what makes them such classics is the direction. Troell has the confidence to let the story unfold gradually, dwelling on scenes and moments. However, it never once feels slow or stretched.
• New high-definition digital restorations of both films, with uncompressed monaural soundtracks on the Blu-rays
• New introduction by theater and film critic John Simon
• New conversation between film scholar Peter Cowie and director Jan Troell
• New interview with actor Liv Ullmann
• To Paint with Pictures, an hour-long documentary from 2005 on the making of the films, featuring archival footage as well as interviews with Troell, Ullmann, producer and coscreenwriter Bengt Forslund, actor Eddie Axberg, and composer Georg Oddner
• New English subtitle translations
• Plus: An essay by critic Terrence Raffert
The Emigrants/The New Land is released on Blu-ray and DVD by Sony Pictures Home Entertainment as part of the Criterion Collection on Monday.