Format: Video from The Magic Flashdrive on laptop.
I’ve written a lot of reviews on this site, so I’m never really sure what I’ve mentioned before or not. For The Emigrants (Utvandrarna), a story of a family emigrating from Sweden to the United States, I feel like I have something close to a personal connection. My grandmother, Anna Hansen, was not Swedish, but Danish. She came to America by herself in 1910, claiming to be 16, although the family story is that she may have been 14. It’s a staggering thing to consider, moving across an ocean alone to a country where she didn’t know the language at such a young age. I have a reproduction of her arrival documents from Ellis Island and a picture of her ship. It’s an interesting connection to my family’s past, and certainly something that connects me in some ways to this movie. Okay, the movie concerns Sweden and she was from Denmark, but there are a lot of similarities.
The Emigrants is a good three hours long, and for a film that is about emigration, it’s an interesting choice that the first half takes place in Sweden and only the last quarter or so actually takes place in the United States and consists of our Swedes getting from New York to Minnesota (of course). Primarily, we are concerned with the Nilsson family. Karl Oskar (Max von Sydow) has inherited his family farm from his father and is soon married to Kristina (Liv Ullmann) and raising a family. The farm appears cursed, though, with crops ruined by heat and weather. Meanwhile, Karl Oskar’s brother Robert (Eddie Axberg) takes work as a farmhand under an exceedingly cruel master. It is here that he meets Arvid (Pierre Lindstedt), who is a little slow, but a good friend. Eventually, after a fierce beating, Robert runs away despite having agreed to work the farm for a year.
Eventually, Robert decides that he wants to go to America and asks Karl Oskar for his share of the inheritance so he can go. He discovers that Karl Oskar has thought about taking the trip as well. Kristina doesn’t want to go, but the death of their oldest child caused more or less by hunger convinces her that perhaps life will be better in a new country. Meanwhile, her uncle Danjel (Allan Edwall) has gotten in trouble for preaching a version of Christianity without being a priest. He won’t stop, so eventually he, his wife Inga-Lena (Ulla Smidje) and part of his congregation—especially the former prostitute Ulrika (Monica Zetterlund), are forced out of the country as well. Robert secures passage for Arvid, and off we go.
The second half of the film concerns initially the long boat voyage and then the trip to Minnesota. Again, there are problems, sickness, lice infestations, deaths and more. Kristina comes close to death a few times, partly because she is pregnant again. Danjel’s faith is tested multiple times as well, while Robert grows closer to Ulrika’s daughter. Once in New York, the new emigrants travel by train, paddleboat, and foot to Minnesota.
It’s tempting to call The Emigrants plotless, but it isn’t, really. It’s simply that the plot isn’t anything that grand. The people realize that their life as dirt-poor farmers is terrible, and they take the opportunity to go to a new place where perhaps things will be better. It’s difficult, there is a great deal of suffering and trials, and eventually they reach their goal, still hoping that perhaps they can make their lives better.
I don’t think The Emigrants is for everyone. It would be easy to call this a dull film, but it’s surprisingly beautiful in many ways. It may simply be that so many movies are concerned with big stories, stories that we tell ourselves are important in the grand sense. The Emigrants isn’t like that. While it covers thousands of miles and is arguably about the most important event in the lives of these people, it is essentially a small story. It is also an incredibly American story, one that many people can identify with, at least in part. For many Americans, an immigration story like this one is a part of our heritage, something that is almost uniquely American at least in how common it seems to be. That it’s Swedish would seem to matter little, since this heritage could be easily claimed by any number of people of various ancestries. It may differ in the details, but not in the broad sweep.
While it is a slow film and a long one, I didn’t find myself distracted or bored through the running time. A great deal of this comes from the cast. All of the characters are compelling in some way, and while there is some friction between them, specifically between the Nilssons and Ulrika, it’s difficult not to like everyone involved. It’s good storytelling when we become this involved in the small concerns and battles of these people, and we are almost compelled to do so.
The Emigants isn’t something I would sit down with often, but I liked it for what it is. It gets a lot of critical love, which I understand, but which also seems out of proportion for the film that we have here. It’s good. It hits a few solid places for a lot of people. And that’s pretty much it. Liv Ullmann is great, of course, but I’m a little surprised at the lack of love for Max von Sydow, who certainly carries a great deal of the movie on his shoulders. And is it weird that I kept thinking this should be Bergman with those two stars?
Why to watch The Emigrants: For something where half of it takes place in Sweden, it might be the most American movie ever made.
Why not to watch: It’s probably longer than it feels like it needs to be.