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.