On December 26, 1862, 38 Lakota Sioux men were hanged in Mankato Minnesota. It remains the largest mass execution in United States history. For Jan Troell, the Swedish director who stages a vivid recreation of the execution near the end of his seven hour epic about Swedish immigrants in the north Midwest, it was just punishment. While one of the film’s characters carefully explains that the Lakota were driven to war by an artificial famine created by the United States government, the scenes of Indian atrocities against white settlers, one clearly inspired by the Manson cult’s murder of Sharon Tate, create a much stronger impression. This is not a revisionist western about the suffering of native Americans. It is an epic about the struggle of a group of Swedish settlers to establish themselves in the “new world.”
The Emigrants, the first half of the epic, begins in Småland, a province in Southern Sweden. Now a wealthy, prosperous region of the European Union, the headquarters of IKEA, in 1844 it was a harsh, repressive backwater, dominated by narrow-minded Lutheran fundamentalism, and a rigid social hierarchy. Karl Oskar Nilsson, a peasant farmer played by Max von Sydow, and his wife Kristina, played by Liv Ullman, try to make a go at farming, but it is clearly hopeless. They are hard-working, pious, industrious people, but the land is too barren. The population has outstripped the region’s carrying capacity. There is no upwardly mobility in mid-19th Century Sweden, only an inevitable slide into poverty and debt.
Robert, Karl Oscar’s younger brother played by Eddie Axberg, a likeable if somewhat dim romantic dreamer and rebel, is an indentured servant at a neighboring farm. His master is a cruel, physically abusive tyrant, in one scene boxing his ears so hard that it would give poor Robert a bad case of tinnitus that would last for the rest of his short life. But unlike his older brother, Robert is not without imagination. Obsessively reading a book about opportunities in North America, especially the passages about there being no rigid European style class system, he imagines himself as an American. Lacking the fare for the passage across the Atlantic, his dream remains a dream until Karl Oscar, Kristina, Kristina’s uncle Danjel, a freelance evangelical minister who’s persecuted by the local authorities for holding unsanctioned prayer meetings, Ulrika, one of Danjel’s parishioners, an ex-prostitute played by the Swedish jazz singer Monica Zetterlund, and several of their neighbors decide that emigration is their only hope of ever making a decent living. They sell all they have and buy tickets on a clipper ship bound for New York.
Arriving in the port city of Karlshamn, Robert spots a magnificent sailing ship just off the coast, its sleek lines and intricate rigging looking like the culmination of his romantic dreams. It’s an astonishing scene, imagination become reality, mind meets matter, a depiction of Robert’s world opening up right in front of his eyes. But the voyage across the ocean is brutal, excruciating, not quite a slave ship or an Irish coffin ship, but dirty, lice ridden, harsh, claustrophobic, and in several cases fatal. Kristina, who is pregnant, barely survives. Ulrika the ex-prostitute, is scapegoated for the lice. Robert’s wonder at the sight of the magnificent clipper ship off the coast becomes passive, bored misery, lying back in his bunk, his tinnitus growing ever worse. Only Karl Oscar, the tough as nails patriarch, manages to keep his head, and only because his concern for Kristina outweighs any urge he might have to indulge himself in his misery.
Indeed, the Emigrants above all is the story of a marriage, a marriage the the term “happy” would be inadequate to describe. Karl Oscar and Kristina share a bond so deep it goes beyond romance, and represents economic and social necessity. Running a farm takes a man and a woman, a husband and a wife. Their marriage is a harsh Garden of Eden, full of trials and tribulations, but ultimately what defines being human. Von Sydow and Ullman, both good looking professional actors, are perfectly believable as plain Swedish peasants, their physical beauty not detracting from the movie’s credibility, but on the contrary, lending an air of dignity to the working class that only a great artist like Jan Troell could make us believe. Through everything, the brutal voyage, the long journey west, the dangerous Minnesota winters, the struggle to build a homestead out of raw materials, they not only survive but prosper. Just before Kristina’s death in childbirth at the close of The New Land, Karl Oscar hands her an apple, the fruit of the tree she had planted years before. They have reestablished paradise in the new world, the painful birth of Scandinavian America.
Robert, on the other hand, dies young, doomed as all single males are inevitably doomed. On the voyage across the Atlantic, it first appears that he may pair off with Ulrika’s illegitimate daughter Elin, a pretty young woman who at first glance would appeal to any young man. But Elin is the female version of Robert, the impractical romantic dreamer. When he offers to teach her English, she argues that there’s no need to study. She genuinely believes that when she sets down in New York she will be so filled with the holy spirit that God will give her the ability to speak the new language, almost as if she were one of the early martyrs in Acts of the Apostles. They are clearly not the pair to settle down and grind through the decades long process of building a farm in Minnesota.
Instead Robert and his friend Arvin head out for California to prospect gold. They have no idea how to find the gold — someone will help us, Robert says — or how the trek across the high sierra and the California desert will make the voyage across the Atlantic seem by contrast like a stay at a first class hotel. Somehow Robert makes it. Arvin, who has never taken the trouble to learn English, dies after he drinks water that is clearly labeled “poison.” Yet in the end Robert’s abilities fail his imagination. While he does know enough English to get by, he mistranslates signs that say “Beware of Yellow Fever” to “Beware of Gold Fever,” mistakenly thinking a hard practical warning is a conspiracy to limit his American dreams. When he returns home to Oscar and Kristina with a large wad of counterfeit bills he had been scammed into accepting in exchange for actual gold coins, Oscar can barely hide his contempt. Becoming an American is hard, grinding work, not aimless dreaming. The United States is a place for practical men willing to look to the future, not romantic poets with no grounding in reality. Yet ultimately Robert is the most likeable, sympathetic character in Troell’s epic, the stand in for Troell himself, a tragic figure born before Swedish Americans would enter the middle-class, then the intellectual elites, and produce their own playwrights, poets, painters, actors and film directors.
How do we define “immigrants”, or “emigrants”, for that matter? Our persective changes with time and relative position on the globe.
The flood of Scandinavians to the north central US was part of an international advertising campaign to attract the destitute from other lands. At one point the US bragged about being the “melting pot” the Statue of Liberty proclaims.
Those days are long gone, as are the Lakota tribes immigrating Europeans crowded out.
The more I know about the past, the harder it is to judge it. Stories or films about individuals in historical contexts appeal to imagination, but from my 2023 perspective, I empathize with all of those who, as we are, caught in context.
The book Robert is reading is 100% an advertisement to get immigrants to move to Minnesota. It says things like “slaves in America live better than white men in Sweden.” Robert believes a lot of it because he’s got a poetic sensibility. He’s the spark that sets off the emigration, but he’s too detached from the real world to succeed. Karl Oscar keeps calling him a “liar” because he gets sick of Robert making things up out of thin air. That’s what’s so tragic that Robert gets cheated out of his gold. He had the gold in his hands. It was the one time his dreams became reality.
Swedes these days, of course, are considered “old stock Americans.”
My first ancestor in the United States was from a town called Singen on the German/Swiss border.
I’m almost certain she left for the United States because she had an illegitimate child with a French soldier (Napoleon’s troops had occupied the town) and was barred from the church (and thus civil society).
She left with a man in his 50s, whom she later married.
So who am I descended from? A dashing French Hussar, one of Murat’s elite cavalry or a dull middle-aged German burger?
Troell’s movie deals with the repressive Lutheran state church in quite a bit of detail. The prayer meetings Kristina’s uncle holds were for people like my great grandmother x 4, people barred from the official church.
The irony is when Ulrika, the ex prostitute, settles down in Minnesota, she marries a local Baptist Minister. For her it’s upward mobility. She’s only in her late 20s and she’s made it into the upper-middle-class. But her fellow Swedes try to ostracize her for marrying outside of the Lutheran faith. A key scene is when Kristina stands up for her and Karl Oscar supports her. The Swedish immigrants bring their old religious bigotries with them, but Karl Oscar and Kristina embrace the idea of religious liberty.
Thanks for fleshing out the story and the personal anecdote. I figure we are all mutts, from a genenic point of view, but a little gene mixing is probably good for species survival. Also, I believe religion, either overtly or covertly, causes more conflict and war than anything, as you observe here.
It’s good to see your blogs on WordPress again. So many people have dropped off the radar.
My mother’s family stayed entirely German and my father’s entirely Polish (neither married outside their immediate ethnic groups) until the New Deal and Franklin Roosevelt. Americans (well white Americans) didn’t become mutts until the 1960s and 1970s. So Ulrika marrying into the local Anglo middle-class and leaving her Swedish roots (after the local Swedes “cancel” her) is pretty forward looking and rebellious.
When I refer to mutts, I’m thinking of genetic diversity within a continent, such as Europe. Europe has had exposure to African and Asian cultures and people for centuries, but intermarriage between different continents was not the norm. Germany and Poland share borders and some culture, if not language, but national borders in Europe have shifted regularly over the centuries. It is so small, and each country is so small, that there was regular intermixing of language, religion, and culture.
I agree FDR’s New Deal mixed some people up, but so did the Depression itself, forcing migration from urban centers like New York and Chicago toward the Midwest and California. Enclaves, such as Chinatown in New York, or Spanish Harlem did allow people of like ethnicities to remain close-knit, often because they also shared cultural values and religion.
As the film shows, transplanted cultural norms, as with the Swedes, conflicted with the natives who had a history that predated all European immigrants, and they reacted to the imposition on their hunting and other grounds.
As you point out, Ulrika married outside her people after they had already extruded her. Here the attraction of opposites overcame the judgment of her peers.
Spain: Africa and Europe
The Balkans: Near Asia and Europe
Southern Italy: Africa and Europe
Russia and Eastern Europe: Asia and Europe
In fact the intermarriage between Europeans, Africans and Asians has profoundly influenced American immigration policy. Southern and Eastern Europeans have always been considered “white” but only barely. Anglo Saxon supremacists have always views Poles or Italians with a suspicion they’ve never viewed Scandinavians with. It was actually written into immigration law in 1924. Southern and Eastern Europeans are still largely considered “low status whites” because there’s more of a chance they’re genetically mixed (as opposed to people from northwestern Europe).
In the two movies, the ratio of men to women is so unbalanced some of the Swedes marry Indian women but there’s a running complaint they’re too small (Swedes are large or at least Swedish men fancy themselves as being well-endowed). In fact, a key scene involves the emigrants finally arriving at what they thought was going to be a fine house by one of the emigrants sons but finding out that he lives in a shack and is married to a native woman.
There’s one great scene in the movie with Kristina is trying to buy seeds for flowers in a local shop but doesn’t know how to say it in English. Even after she learns the English word she insists on using the Swedish word. It almost seems like using the English word for flower is taking flowers away from her, that the concept of “flower” is as much a part of the Swedish language as it as a physical reality. It’s really hard to express how well Liv Ullman manages to express the immigrant state of mind.