Reticence is not a quality usually associated with drama, least of all film. Most filmmakers feel they must show, tell and push audiences to recognize the important points. Jan Troell’s two-film epic, The Emigrants and The New Land, about a group of Swedish émigrés to America, is a rare exception, unfolding with a restraint and freshness that make it feel as if the world is being seen and revealed for the first time.
Troell was his own cinematographer, and the films demonstrate what miracles can occur when a director does his or her own camerawork, embracing people, earth, water and sky in limpid, luminous, almost casually beautiful images. At over six hours, it is easy to understand why the results had to be split into two parts. The Emigrants, which takes place largely in Sweden and on the ship taking the Nilsson family (headed by Max von Sydow as Karl Oskar and Liv Ullmann as Katrina) to America, has the advantage of a simple goal that requires minimal exposition. The New Land has the tougher task of moving toward an indeterminate “success” as the characters adjust and try to integrate into their new surroundings. The Emigrants presents challenges that are overcome; The New Land elides a series of achievements between temporary obstacles of greater or lesser import.
If it feels as if The Emigrants is primarily a matter of the fall of light and the feel of earth and water, The New Land is more “dramatic,” with considerable time devoted to the failure of Karl Oskar’s younger brother Robert (Eddie Axberg) in the California gold fields. Stylistically heightened, the flashbacks throw off the balance of the story a little, but they stop just short of the conventional dramatic emphases successfully avoided elsewhere. The more diffuse, character-driven narrative of The New Land supports a simple, heart-breaking intimacy. For example, in addition to Robert’s aching self-recrimination, there is a scene in which Katrina tries on an outlandish hat. Ullmann transcends the triteness of the action with such unaffected, loving detail that we share unadulterated joy with a character who richly deserves her fleeting happiness.
It is not the only time when such intimate detail and poignancy help overcome cliché. For example, Ulrike (Monica Zetterlund), the village whore who travels with the Nilssons to America, is little better than that reliable standby of frontier fiction, the hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold. Zetterlund is immensely appealing, but the stereotype still beats under her fiery determination and honesty. Similarly, the dirt, disease and death that the Nilssons encounter feel almost like generic requirements and by the end of the six-and-a-half hours, you are ready to see things wrapped up. Such flaws nonetheless fade into the background of the pellucid treatment that makes the films so uniquely moving. For there is no cliché so worn, no spectacle so ugly that it is not renewed and refreshed by Troell’s unblinking lyricism and intelligence.