Last Criterion Month, I reviewed The Emigrants, a surprising Best Picture nominee that I believe was the longest movie we’ve ever reviewed during one of these months. Well, that record is swiftly being broken by the film’s sequel (or perhaps more of the second part of one epic story) which clocks in at a hefty 202 minutes. I, of course, wish I’d had a little more time between my last review to fully digest this film before reviewing it. But, that’s rarely the way these things work, and I just finished up watching the movie (took me a few sittings). Not sure if that puts me in the best mindset to tackle this epic tale of Swedish immigrants settling down in America in the mid-19th century, but it’s hard to deny that the film leaves you with plenty to chew on.
When we last left off with the Nilsson family, they had just survived the arduous journey from Sweden to America, where they found themselves a plot of land in Minnesota territory that they could call their own. The first half of The New Land (it thankfully has an intermission) deals with the specifics of the family settling in and building a new home for themselves to live in. Once again, Karl Oskar (played by Max von Sydow) has most of the say in what their priorities are, while his wife Kristina (Liv Ullman) tends to do the cooking, taking care of the children, and pumping out more children, since as the film depicts fairly matter of factly, that’s just the way things were back then. We also see Karl Oskar and Kristina having a few encounters with the Native Americans living beside them while also dealing with how much they want to associate with the more fervent Christians bringing their religion to the area.
Early on in The New Land, Karl Oskar’s younger brother Robert (Eddie Axberg) — who made the trek to America with his family in the first film — heads off to California to find gold with his friend Arvid (Pierre Lindstedt). Around the midway point of the film, Robert comes back looking worse for wear, but also comes bearing a boatload of money, while saying that Arvid stayed out West. However, we then see in several extended, mostly dialogue-free flashback sequences how truly unpleasant Robert’s journey out West was, before in real-time Karl Oskar learns that Robert’s money is counterfeit. Robert is also clearly ill from some poisonous water he drank during his journey and eventually dies at the tender age of 22.
After that, the tensions between the Native Americans and Swedes who have settled in the area come to a head when several Sioux men kill a few of the Swedes basically unprovoked. This then leads to the movie intertwining with the real-life mass execution of Sioux warriors that happened in 1962 in Mankato. Also, in the back half of the movie, it’s introduced that if Kristina has any more children she may die, though she eventually ignores this advice. This was one thing The New Land shared in common with The Emigrants, where I kept asking myself why these people would keep having so many kids when their lives were hard enough, but of course, contraception didn’t exist. Anyways, Kristina’s gamble with her body does indeed take a toll on her health which potentially puts her in the position of leaving Karl Oskar the responsibility of raising their many, many children, which we see the results of in the film’s final shot.
The Emigrants book series, written by Vilhelm Moberg, covers four novels and it seems that the approach that The Emigrants (the movie) and The New Land took was having each film cover two books. This accounts for the epic runtime of both films as well as the fact that these movies might have worked better as a TV miniseries. Still, I would say neither films drag that much despite that they have a deliberate pace and their scenes of violence are usually brief and surprisingly muted. But the attention to detail of these people’s lives on their newly founded farm remains entrancing, perhaps due to director Jan Troell’s affection for these people as well as the wilderness that they’re attempting to tame.
Speaking of, much like in The Emigrants, Troell truly has a knack for capturing manual labor on film that I’m not sure I’ve ever seen from another director (perhaps because most people become film directors in order to avoid the manual labor parts of being on a film crew). There are lots of shots of trees being cut down, then sawed into pieces to build a cabin, sicles slicing fields of wheat, and the arcane ways in which people cooked food in the 1800s. You get a sense of both the satisfaction of these people’s hard work as well as the arduousness of it and the frustration that comes when it doesn’t quite pay off.
This mix of satisfaction and harsh realities also speaks to the tone and story overall in The New Land. It doesn’t quite have the wonder of fresh possibilities of the Nilsson’s hopeful journey (filled with its share of tragedies) that we see in The Emigrants. Here, the family’s expectations are brought a bit more down to Earth, as we get conflicting feelings from the characters over how thankful they are that they came to America, as Kristina does seem to occasionally miss Sweden, while Karl Oskar seems to feel that he was able to achieve the kind of freedom in America that he was never afforded in the old country. Then you’ve also got Robert’s tragic trek out West, which seems to be an indication that the kid’s belief in America’s promise may have gotten the best of him. Still, the film ultimately gives the sense that whatever hardships this family endured over the course of emigrating, their struggles were done in the name of making better lives for their future generations.
It’s a little hard to know what to make of the film’s depictions of Native Americans, since it shows them both as understanding and respectful and as desperate and inhumane. Though I suppose this is just all part of these films’ desire to show everything very matter-of-factly and not try to embellish or romanticize this period of history. There’s a scene about midway through the film where Karl Oskar is having a conversation in which he discusses with a fellow settler that even though he obtained his land legally, it was ultimately land that was stolen from the indigenous people that used to live there. It adds to the sense that the movie has a very outsider’s perspective of this very American story told by a non-American, and can therefore see the bigger picture that as much as America looked like a promised land to these white people who emigrated there, it was actually a lot more complicated than that.
Overall, I’m not sure I liked The New Land quite as much as The Emigrants, but at the same time, it’s questionable whether they’re worth comparing since they do very much feel like one continuous, decades-long story. I will say this chapter felt a little more experimental in terms of the filmmaking, with Robert’s sometimes hallucinatory journey to the West being the most obvious example. It also felt a little looser in terms of both the narrative and visual storytelling, which did occasionally try my patience. Still, it’s pretty hard not to feel a sense of satisfaction after watching these epic pairs of films and like you’ve seen the arc of the kind of turbulent times your ancestors endured, just so you could live with the comfort of writing movie reviews on the internet from the comfort of your cozy, air-conditioned home.