The Emigrants (1971)
Directed by Jan Troell
December 5 at BAM, part of its Max von Sydow series
Cinephiles entering into this expecting a sweeping 19th-century epic in which hugs are delicately framed in front of bombastic cannonfire will be sorely mistaken—but never, ever disappointed. The history-obsessed Troell is a peerless termite artist; his film rigorously traces the path of Swedish peasant Karl Oskar (Max Von Sydow), his wife Kristina (Liv Ullman), and their extended family. The Nilssons have rotten luck; despite dogged persistence tending the soil, their animals—and eventually one of the couple’s children—freeze to death. Karl Oscar is a man of the land, but no simpleton: rather than the shoot-for-the-moon naivete that we drape over old-time immigrant parables today, his choice to take the family to America is driven less by foolish optimism than outright despair. Barely scraping by in a community that conflates success with saintliness, the family boards a boat which, eventually, will land them in Minnesota.
If they can make it, that is—their journey is perilous and takes, frankly, forever. Troell was his own cinematographer, but the angles are inexact; from the evidence onscreen, he kept the camera running without detailed choreography or pre-planned compositions. Instead he works gesturally, never missing a cow’s hoofprint in the mud or a ray of sunlight filtered through blankets as a character wakes up. Troell disregards mise-en-scene in the traditional sense; aside from landscape shots, not a single frame would work in a Bergman movie. By pushing viewers through history one tiny, unrecorded experience at a time, Troell breaks down tidy preconceptions about what constitutes a “scene”: life presses forward, but only as quickly or as slowly as the characters are feeling it. Von Sydow and Ullman were megastars in Sweden, but they carry the film less in the emotional sense than the physical—that is, acting with their entire bodies, in continuous flows, they embody it.
Daniel Boone chronicler Edwin James wrote of an American mode of life “wherein the artificial wants and the uneasy restraints inseparable from a crowded population are not known, wherein we feel ourselves dependent immediately and solely on the bounty of nature, and on the strength of our own arm.” This is what The Emigrants is really about: a silent, unspoken shift in Karl Oskar that decides the future of his children (and, obviously, their children) away from the church, and toward the land. Ever tactile, Troell’s handheld camera makes you feel the family’s hope, disappointment, hunger, impatience, and shivering. This is a film about what has been termed The American Dream, but it exists less as a fantasy slathered over the screen's dirt-specked faces than as a trembling, uncanny magnetic force at the forefront of every character’s mind—hard to say out loud, but impossible to turn away from.