There have been many films about the dangerous journey of immigrants to America, the land of prosperity and new beginnings, such as El Norte (1983) and Sin Nombre (2009). However, I think none of them really possess the devastating and stark power as Director Jan Troell’s epic masterpieces, The Emigrants (1971) / The New Land (1972), which were praised unanimously by critics and worldwide. It isn’t difficult to see why; the entire saga is beautiful, authentic, and a profound cinematic experience like no other.
Adapted from a novel by Vilhelm Moberg, it stars film legends Max von Sydow and Liv Ullmann as Karl Oscar and Kristina Nilsson, a couple who are struggling in their native Sweden. They experience every living tragedy you can think, including famine, lack of resources, disease, and the loss of one their children. Tired of living in despair and limitations, Karl Oscar, Kristina, their children, and Karl Oscar’s younger brother, Robert (an amazing Eddie Axberg), and his friend, decide to leave for America, where they can start a new life full of promise and opportunity.
Their journey proves to be a harrowing one as they have to travel by ship with numerous other people, where they have to deal with the cold, lice, and other deadly diseases. Fortunately, they eventually make it to America, where they build new farms and homes, have access to food and clothing, education for their children, and a seemingly hopeful future. However, those hopes instantly dash as they have to deal with some of the same obstacles as they did in Sweden, with new challenges such as sickness, money issues, and multiple attacks by malevolent Indian tribes. In this case, they realize no matter where they go, a new danger will always follow.
Judging by the total running time of the saga, which is over six hours, many people may be turned off by it. However, it is so engrossing and beautifully shot, that you actually forget how long it is. You feel the characters’ pain and sorrows, and although the story is set in the 1800s, you as the viewer realize that their tragedies are just as relevant now as they were back. Troell’s eye for detail is amazingly strong, and you sense that ability in every scene, even when nothing is happening. Both von Sydow and Ullmann give wonderful, career-best performances, in which Ullmann was nominated for her first Academy Award as Best Actress for her work in The Emigrants. The first film was also nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Foreign Language Film, while the The New Land was also nominated for Best Foreign Film.
As usual, Criterion outdoes the competition with amazing releases, and their treatment for The Emigrant / The New Land set is definitely no exception. The two-disc Blu-ray edition comes with great supplements such as a new introduction by film and theater critic John Simon; a wonderful new conversation between Troell and noted film scholar Peter Cowie; a revealing new interview with the lovely Ullmann, as she talks about the challenges of making the saga, her role as Kristina, and how she notes it as the one that gave her international stardom; To Paint with Pictures: an hour-long documentary about the making of the films, featuring archival footage as well as interviews with Troell, Ullmann, Axberg, screenwriter Bengt Forlund, and composer Georg Forslund; and trailers for both films. There is also a great new essay by critic Terrence Raffety to round out the release.
I’m going out on a limb here to say I think that this is arguably the greatest epic ever made, because it is more stripped-down, unpolished, and unpretentious than most films; and thanks to Criterion, film lovers and collectors will have the chance to see why I stand by this statement.