(With the Oscars scheduled to be awarded on March 4th, I have decided to review at least one Oscar-nominated film a day. These films could be nominees or they could be winners. They could be from this year’s Oscars or they could be a previous year’s nominee! We’ll see how things play out. Today, I take a look at the 1972 best picture nominee, The Emigrants!)
Since I’m currently dealing with either a really bad cold or the onset of the flu (let’s hope that it’s the former), I decided that Monday would be the perfect night to stay up extremely late and watch a 190-minute Swedish movie.
The Emigrants was released in Sweden in 1971 and it received an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. Then, it was released in the United States in 1972 and it managed to receive four more Oscar nominations, including one for Best Picture. The Emigrants was the third foreign language film to be nominated for Best Picture, the first film to be nominated in multiple years, and also the first Swedish film to contend for the Academy’s top prize. (The following year, Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers would also become the second Swedish film nominated for Best Picture.) At the same time that The Emigrants was nominated for Best Picture, its sequel, The New Land, was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film. 1972 was an interesting year.
The Emigrants opens in 1844, in Sweden. Karl Oskar (Max Von Sydow) has married Kristina (Liv Ullmann). Like his father before him, Karl Oskar is a farmer. It’s an exhausting life. There is never enough food to eat. The weather is perpetually gloomy. The harvest is always disappointing. As poor farmers, Karl Oskar and his family face constant prejudice. In Sweden, the only thing more corrupt than the government is the church. After one of his daughters starves to death, what choice does Karl Oskar and his family have other than to escape to America?
As Karl Oskar’s brother, Robert (Eddie Axberg), explains, the best rice comes from the Carolinas. The best farmland is in America. In America, anyone can become rich. Anyone can walk up to the President and talk to him without running the risk of being imprisoned or executed. (In 1844, ordinary citizens could stop by the White House and make an appointment to see the President. This, of course, would change decades later, after a disgruntled office seeker shot President Garfield.) In America, Robert says excitedly, no one works more than 14 hours a day! Even slaves can own land and make their own money!
The Emigrants deals with their Karl Oskar and his family’s voyage to America. Karl Oskar and Kristina do not travel alone. Kristina’s uncle (Allan Edwall) is with them and hopes that, in America, he will be allowed to freely practice his religious beliefs. A former prostitute, Ulrika (Monica Zetterlund), is also with them, hoping a new land will mean a better life for both herself and her daughter. Even Robert’s best friend, Arvid (Pierre Lindstedt), going with them. It’s not an easy journey. Not everyone survives the voyage to North America but those that do soon find themselves in a young and untouched country where anything seems to be possible.
Swedish cinema has a reputation for being dark and brooding but those are two words that definitely do not apply to The Emigrants, which is about as positive a portrait of America as you could ever hope to see. Regardless of whatever tragedy may occur during the journey, this movie leaves no doubt that the journey was more than worth it. It unfolds at a pace that is perhaps a bit too leisurely but, at the same time, it’s also an achingly pretty movie with shots that bring to mind the best of Terrence Malick. In fact, there are times when the film is almost too pretty. It’s possible to get so caught up in looking at all the beauty around Karl Oskar and Kristina that you lose track of the story. Max Von Sydow and Liv Ullmann are both achingly pretty as well and, even more importantly, they’re believable as a married couple who are often equally in love and equally annoyed with each other.
It was interesting to go from watching The Grapes of Wrath to watching The Emigrants. If The Grapes of Wrath was an American nightmare, The Emigrants is about as pure a celebration of the American Dream as you’re going to find. It lost the Oscar for Best Picture to a far different film about the immigrant experience in America, The Godfather.